The fate of the Frontier House turned into a last-minute election issue in Lewiston.
The debate figures to continue into the fall, no matter the results of Tuesday's election, since the village has 120 days to back out of a purchase agreement the Village Board approved Monday.
One mayoral candidate, Trustee Bruce R. Sutherland, voted to allow outgoing Mayor Terry C. Collesano to sign the purchase contract for the unused 194-year-old Center Street building, owned by Richard A. Hastings.
Sutherland's opponent, former village clerk-treasurer Anne C. Welch, spoke out against the deal, which includes the creation of a village corporation to supervise repairs to the deteriorating structure and to seek someone to redevelop it.
Originally a hotel, the Frontier House was last used as a McDonald's restaurant. It closed in 2004.
"If Mr. Hastings has been unable to find a suitable buyer after 14 years, why does our current but soon-to-retire mayor believe the village can find such a buyer? Why shift the difficult responsibility of selling this building from the current owner to the village?" Welch asked.
"We've got 120 days to do our due diligence. I'm not going to say no until we've explored our options," Sutherland said. "There's people out there who I think will come forward, who didn't want to deal with the current owner but will deal with us."
Village attorney Joseph L. Leone Jr. said the contract allows the village to scrub the $800,000 purchase for any reason. The village even would receive its $5,000 down payment back if it backs out of the agreement.
Welch and other critics said they would like to see a new use for the vacant structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but not at the village's expense.
After Collesano announced the deal Friday, Welch denounced the plan on Saturday as a "half-baked plan."
"I have to research the contract, but I have always been in favor of private ownership," Welch told a reporter after Monday's meeting. "I don't want that on the taxpayers."
Hastings told The Buffalo News Friday that he faced potential fines of $1,000 a day from the village for building code violations on the building's exterior, and he called that a main reason for selling the building. Those charges will be dropped if the village buys the building.
But then it will be up to the village, or the new village-controlled corporation, to make the repairs.
Welch called the potential repair costs "astronomical."
The village had been rejected in two previous state grant applications because of that. Collesano said the grant applications failed because the village didn't own the property. If it owns the property, the chances of receiving grants would be better, he said.
Collesano denied that he was forcing the deal through at his last board meeting as mayor.
"It didn't happen overnight. This has been going on for six months," he said. "There was no push on it. It just happened that way."
During Monday's meeting, Sutherland wondered if the contract should be tabled until after the election, but he changed his mind when Leone said Monday's board vote would not be binding on the election winners.
"I hate to take this away from Mayor Collesano," Sutherland said.
The village has to put $5,000 down immediately, Leone said. If the village decides to go ahead after 120 days, it will have to pay Hastings $400,000 at the closing.
Leone said Hastings will hold a mortgage for the remaining $400,000. The village will make quarterly payments for two years, calculated as if it were a 10-year, 5 percent mortgage. Then the balance will be due in a balloon payment at the end of the two years, Leone said.
The Town of Lewiston is being asked to contribute half the purchase price through its allocation of Niagara River Greenway funds, Leone said.
Town Supervisor Steve Broderick said in a telephone interview that the town has made no decision on taking part in the deal.
"I don't want to own the Frontier House," Broderick said. "It would be all Greenway money, maybe over a couple of years."
Battle lines are drawn
The Village Board will hold a mandatory public hearing on the acquisition July 16. Monday's public comments offered a preview.
Resident Jacqueline Lampman demanded a referendum.
"I don't want to pay for it," she told the board. "The five of you can't make a decision on this."
Herbert W. Richardson, owner of Lewiston's Edwin Mellen Press, called the proposed deal "madness" and portrayed the Frontier House as a money pit that would cost the village millions in insurance and maintenance expenses.
"There's a good reason Hastings hasn't put any money into it," Richardson said. "If the village buys that property, the taxpayers are going to be stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck. You're putting your head in the crocodile's jaws and he's going to cut it off."
Richardson said he tried to buy the Frontier House himself, but Hastings, who once battled him in a lawsuit over property in Niagara Falls, wouldn't take his calls.
"Why do you want to buy it, then?" Collesano asked. "Because you see potential, that's why."
Former Niagara County Legislature Chairman Lee Simonson, still active in Lewiston affairs, derided "naysayers who want to wait for a knight in shining armor to come in and rescue us."
"Frankly, this is something that should have happened years ago," Simonson said.
"I am cautiously optimistic the (the Frontier House) will someday be returned to its original splendor," environmental activist Timothy Henderson said.