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Cuomo praises Hamister, Goldman Sachs at groundbreaking for Falls hotel

NIAGARA FALLS – After four years of battles, everyone appeared to be on the same side Tuesday at the ground-breaking ceremony for the $35 million, 128-room Hyatt Place Hotel at 310 Rainbow Boulevard, at the corner of Old Falls Street.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo joined with developer Mark E. Hamister, chief executive officer of Hamister Group of Buffalo, and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster Tuesday to lift a ceremonial shovel of dirt at the ceremony, but both said the project almost didn’t happen.

“There were a series of obstacles he went through, primarily regulatory approval, local zoning approvals, dealing with the local government, and controversy with the local government,” Cuomo said of Hamister. “Developers can build anywhere. There were several instances where he said he was going to pull the plug and said he was going to build elsewhere.”

But the governor said having the project fail was not an option and they were able to sort things through and move forward. He said $25 million of private financing was invested by major investment firm Goldman Sachs, its first investment in Niagara Falls.

“It was a very hard project to get up and going and there were many false starts,” Cuomo said. “To me, it became a bellwether. If this project failed, it would reinforce the negative impression of Niagara Falls and if it went forward, it would affirm the opposite.”

Cuomo said the next challenge will be to bring in people to fill these new hotel rooms and to attract world-class recreational and cultural exhibits.

“We have to make Niagara Falls the place to do the coolest, most fun, educational, family activities,” he said. “We are not going to make Niagara Falls what it was. We are going to make Niagara Falls what it never was – a better, stronger, richer, more vibrant community than ever before. We are going to leave our children a Niagara Falls that is better than the Niagara Falls our parents left us.

Hamister said he is proud to lead in the resurgence of Niagara Falls.

“This is one of the largest commercial projects ... in recent memory,” said Hamister, noting his son, Daniel Hamister, led the vision for the hotel.

Dyster said the six-story hotel is the first non-casino development project of its size in Niagara Falls in more than 40 years.

The 111,000 square foot hotel is expected to be completed in fall 2017 and R&P Oak Hill Development is the general contractor.

Hamister said that in addition to the rooms, there will be 14,500 square feet of convention space on the top of the hotel and 7,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level along Old Falls Street.

“We’re not putting that convention space on the ground floor. We’re putting it on the roof where you can see the gorge and the park and the beautiful vistas of this great community,” Hamister said.

He said he realizes four years was long time for the hotel to come to fruition, but he said they had to design a hotel that would “fit on a tiny one-acre parcel,” there were also franchise rules and it took six to seven months to obtain financing. He said the hotel will create 400 construction jobs and 35 full time jobs in the hotel itself as well as additional seasonal jobs.

“Yes, it takes time. It takes a lot of it,” Hamister said. He called Cuomo the best governor Western New York has ever had, noting that he was a partner in pushing this project forward and revitalizing the region.

Howard Zemsky, president and chief executive officer of Empire State Development Corp., said developing Niagara Falls and connecting it to its waterfront is part of an overall plan for the resuscitation of the city. He said an announcement of major programming, an attraction to draw people to the city, is imminent.

“If any of these projects were easy, it would have happened 40 years ago, 20 years ago, a decade ago,” Zemsky said. “This project is almost two times the investment per room of any hotel in Niagara Falls.”

Zemsky said upgrading hotels in the city is a huge focus and Cuomo agreed, saying quality hotels are needed to bring quality attractions to the city. He said the Hyatt Place is one of five new top-end hotels being built, which will make it more attractive to quality attractions.

Cuomo called bringing Hamister’s hotel to Niagara Falls an especially complicated project and said it would have been very easy to walk away, but he said he asked Hamister and his son to pursue the project and honor their commitment.

“The turnaround is happening,” the governor said. “Today is yet more evidence of that. When someone invests $35 million, it means they believe in the future of the community.”

He said in the past New York pushed away business and drove people away, as the highest taxed state in the nation and by overregulating business. But he said over the past six years, the city has reversed that 180 degrees and for the first time in 50 years young people are coming back to New York.

Cuomo said officials are working to change the defeatist attitude and cycle of decline in Western New York. He said they have “rolled up their sleeves and made things happen that were talked about for years” like the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway, the changes at the Peace Bridge, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, UB 20/20, Canalside, the Seneca Gaming pact and now the construction of the Hamister hotel.