NIAGARA FALLS – More than two months after Buffalo developer Mark E. Hamister acknowledged that he was “warned about” doing business in Niagara Falls, the development outlook in the city seems a bit brighter after Tuesday’s elections.
Voters traded a City Council incumbent – who helped stall a $25 million Hamister proposal – for a new face, giving Mayor Paul A. Dyster a set of lawmakers who come much closer to sharing his vision for the city and far more willing to work with him.
In fact, with the help of some robo calls to city voters from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in the lead-up to Election Day, the mayor now has a supportive majority on the five-member Council.
Since the election, Dyster said he has been getting a lot of phone calls, even from some business interests who weren’t returning calls in the not-too-distant past.
“Now they’re calling us,” the mayor said, alluding to the altered political environment in the city long known for squandering its proximity to a natural wonder because of governmental infighting.
There are a number of projects and initiatives already in the pipeline that Dyster said could see new momentum come the start of next year, thanks to Tuesday’s Council shake-up in which Andrew P. Touma, a Democrat making his first bid for public office, replaced Samuel F. Fruscione. They include:
• The state’s $40 million downtown development challenge, which calls for offering public incentives over the next five years for the best ideas for “signature projects” in the Falls.
• Redevelopment proposals for two-thirds of the former Rainbow Centre mall, which will come from two firms selected in August.
• Work on both sections of the Robert Moses Parkway, with a large section of the north parkway slated for removal, while a section of the south parkway is to be redesigned to allow residents and tourists to have better access to views of the Niagara River.
• The final phase of the new train station project in the North End, providing a rail hub closer to the tourism district.
“I think Niagara Falls is poised on the verge of that type of transformational redevelopment,” Dyster said. “There’s been this perception that one of the things that’s prevented us from taking that next step is dysfunctional politics.”
If the dysfunctional politics are over, there need to be visible, tangible signs of change in the short term, the mayor said.
“I certainly feel like the pressure’s on,” he added.
The state, and more specifically Cuomo, is paying a lot of attention to the Falls, which the governor has emphasized in his economic development plans for the region.
Cuomo got personally involved in the Council race, recording a robo call supporting Touma and Democratic incumbents Kristen M. Grandinetti and Charles A. Walker in the days leading up to the election, as well as endorsing the trio.
All five current members of the Council are Democrats, though Chairman Glenn A. Choolokian ran on the Republican line in 2011.
Though they all share the same party affiliation, there are different factions of the party, with the group siding with Dyster being victorious this time.
A state official, who did not want to be identified because the situation involved a city-level political dispute, said the election means something positive for the future of development in the Falls.
“I think it sends a message that it’s a new day for development in Niagara Falls,” the official said. “Paul Dyster is pro-economic development, and he now appears to have a working majority on the Council who will support progress in downtown Niagara Falls.”
Hamister, a Buffalo developer, last summer found his proposal for a $25 million hotel and apartment development in downtown Niagara Falls held up in a political squabble.
Fruscione, a two-term incumbent who is part of the current three-member Council majority and is a political foe of Dyster, finished sixth in Tuesday’s Council race after losing a spot on the Democratic line when he finished fourth in September’s primary.
Fruscione had been one of the most outspoken lawmakers asking questions about the terms of the Hamister deal before it got approved. The tide changed only after Councilman Robert A. Anderson Jr. flipped his vote and ended the dispute in September, when the Cuomo administration got involved.
Hamister nearly walked away from the deal after a political flier attacking him came out a week before the primary from a political action committee funded by, among others, political operative G. Steven Pigeon, a Fruscione ally.
Fruscione asserted that he was only “looking out for taxpayers” with his questions about the proposal, which he, Anderson and Choolokian tabled at the beginning of July. They refused to allow a vote later that month, and the proposed deal stayed on the table until mid-September.
Anderson met with Sam Hoyt, the former assemblyman from Buffalo who is Cuomo’s regional president of Empire State Development Corp., who answered his questions about the project. Cuomo also had called Hamister to keep him from walking away from the deal.
Dyster, who had accused the Council majority of stalling the project, said that developers have been watching the Falls because of the involvement of a major player such as Hamister and the media attention the dispute and resolution received.
The mayor said he believes the city has an opportunity to reshape its image in the development community.
In the past, the kinds of questions asked by some Council members, according to Dyster, were things like, “Do I like the developer?” or, “Are they from here or someplace else?” or, “Who’s advocating for it, and who will get the most credit?”
“All too often in the past, those are the questions asked by elected officials, and those are not the right questions,” Dyster said.
Even with a change in the political environment, though, progress in Niagara Falls may take time. For example, Buffalo developer Mark D. Croce still isn’t so bullish on the city.
Dyster had invited him previously to look at possible development projects in the Falls, but he does not want to spread himself too thin, with all of the things he has going on in Buffalo, Croce said.
There may be some piecemeal development coming to the Falls, he said, but he thinks the city is still decades away from what he called “sustainable development.”
“Look how long it’s taken Buffalo to rebound,” Croce said, noting that Buffalo has a larger population base than the Falls. Also, while the Falls does have an international tourist attraction, he said, the Canadian side is “so far ahead” of the U.S. side in tourism.
State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, whose district boundaries shifted at the start of this year to include the Falls, said he believes that having the Council and the mayor on the same page “is going to be helpful.”
Will the election results be seen by developers as a sign that internal fighting among city leaders might be over?
“I hope so,” Maziarz said. “I’m looking forward to that. And clearly we have the governor’s attention.”