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Editorial: With bribe allegation dismissed, Hamburg officials need to commit to transparency

It is reassuring to hear that the Erie County District Attorney’s Office found no evidence of a bribe being offered in connection with a Toronto developer’s proposed sports complex in Hamburg. However, if town officials had not been so determined to make the deal behind closed doors, there might never have been a cloud of suspicion.

Supervisor Steven J. Walters and the Town Board did residents a disservice with the secretive manner in which this project has come ever-so-slowly to light. Details the public had a right to hear were concealed by holding discussions in executive sessions. Absent any public disclosure, taxpaying citizens were treated with outright disrespect on a major project in the town.

The district attorney’s determination should not be seen as vindication for the poorly considered process town officials engaged in. The fact that an investigation had to be launched at all speaks volumes.

The town has consistently abused the Freedom of Information law and residents’ right to know about a project that could be a burden on taxpayers for years. Officials should commit to transparency in the future.

Efforts to replace or expand the town’s ice rink at the Nike Base have been in the works for at least 10 years, as News staff reporter Barbara O’Brien wrote in an article published earlier this month. Residents in 2009 voted down a proposal to privatize the town’s rink; discussions picked up again in 2015.

Last year, the town signed an agreement with Sportstar Capital of Toronto “to study the feasibility, prepare a financial analysis and acquire property for a sportsplex.”

The object of discussion: a $30 million multipurpose sports complex to include two ice rinks, a turf field, a gym, a snack bar and meeting rooms. Sportstar would develop the building on a portion of the former South Shore golf course at Southwestern Boulevard and Camp Road. It is there that David Homes is proposing a large retail and residential development.

The structure involves the town owning the land and leasing the building for 30 years. At that point, it would obtain full ownership. Rink Management of Virginia would manage the facility.
Sportstar will pay for the complex and the first $500,000 in losses. After that, the town would be on the hook for much of any deficit in operations at the complex.

Sportstar isn’t the only game in town. The Kaleta Group, with Liberatore Management Group and Ellicott Development, is planning a $15 million twin rinks complex and two multisport fields. It will be home to the HITS Foundation, a charity founded by former Buffalo Sabres player Patrick Kaleta, at the site of the former McKinley Park Inn. The Hamburg Hawks Hockey Association would be a major tenant.

Did we mention this is a private deal, built with private money?

The supervisor, who cast doubts last month on the bribe allegations and accused opponents of the town’s project of casting aspersions, should recognize how lack of transparency played a role in shaping that opposition. It does no good keeping town residents in the dark, especially on the subject of their money.

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