BY TONY FARINA
Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to Niagara Falls on Tuesday to officially break ground on the long-awaited Hamister hotel project in downtown Niagara Falls and he used the occasion to praise his state development team led locally by Howard Zemsky and Sam Hoyt and paint a rosy picture of the success of his Buffalo Billion program throughout the area with no mention of the federal investigation currently underway.
While he did concede it was a very complicated process to get the now-$35-million Hamister project started, crediting the Buffalo-based developer for sticking with it, Cuomo offered no apologies for the very long delay between the announcement back in 2012 by the state and the city that Hamister had been selected the for the project and the groundbreaking four years later for the project that had been billed as one that would usher in a new era of downtown development and was time sensitive.
We’ve known for some time that most of the delay was because Hamister didn’t have the financing in place to move forward despite the do-or-die scenario that state and city officials paraded before a wary City Council back in 2013 to get approval for the sale of the prime parcel to Hamister to get the ball rolling. Now, three years later—and thanks to a $24 million investment from Goldman Sachs—the politicians of all stripe stood before a bulldozer at 310 Rainbow Blvd. and announced everything was in place to begin work on the long-anticipated and highly subsidized hotel that is expected to bring six full-time jobs to the city and another 30-plus part-time jobs. Now I guess that was worth the wait.
Perhaps the biggest news delivered by the governor was that Goldman Sachs, often called the world’s most powerful investment bank, came up with $24 million to help the state save face on what had been viewed as a major failure by many critics as Hamister struggled to get the financing in place for a project that Cuomo and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster had pushed very hard to get through a council that had more questions than answers at the time.
As is the case with most developers, according to the experts, it all comes down to getting the financing from lenders and investors so that—in this case the Hamister Group—the developer can get it done without investing any of his own money. Hamister obviously had a great deal of trouble attracting investment money for his 128-room Hyatt Place, but perhaps with a nudge from the state—we’ll never know for sure—Goldman Sachs came through and saved the day. Goldman Sachs does a lot of business throughout New York State and the Hamister hotel, given the more than $8 million in taxpayer assistance through a state grant and local tax breaks, is seen as a quasi-government project and would certainly be good for the bank’s image and Gov. Cuomo’s who is trying to play up his development efforts and play down the disappointing job-creation numbers of his Start-Up NY program contained in a footnote of a government business report. The last thing he needed was for Hamister to blow up.
In leading the groundbreaking program, Cuomo said “Niagara Falls is one of New York State’s greatest tourism assets and by building these high-quality accommodations, we are showcasing the region’s beauty to even more visitors. This project will support jobs, attract private investment and offer new economic opportunities throughout region. I am proud to see this project underway and encourage residents and visitors alike to take a trip and experience all this region has to offer for themselves.”
An obviously relieved Mark Hamister said he was “thrilled” to be able to break ground and Mayor Dyster called the start of the project that has been anticipated for so long a milestone in the continued development of Niagara Falls, and he gave his due thanks to Cuomo and state development officials “for their persistent focus in seeing this project through to a positive outcome.” There’s no questioning Dyster’s loyalty to the governor, no matter what.
Assemblyman John Ceretto and State Sen. Robert Ortt also basked in the groundbreaking limelight and also on hand was Council President Andrew Touma who held firm in backing the project even though he had become frustrated, like many others, with all the delays.
Maybe at the end of the day, the hotel will add something to the downtown picture and encourage others to invest in Niagara Falls, but only time will tell and we can only hope that the next prime-time developer has his ducks in place before he his handed the keys to a prime parcel only to string out the poor taxpayers who are really footing the bill.
It may take several years to see if this project delivers after it is completed sometime late next year, according to the schedule put forward on Tuesday. We can only hope for the best and pray for no more delays.