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AUGUST 12 - AUGUST 20, 2014

Dyster, Cuomo Gear Up for Elections With News of New Development Here

By Mike Hudson

August 12, 2014

This is progress: The proposed taxpayer subsidized Wonderfalls will be built by taking from working class taxpayers and giving to rich developers who will then become richer.

The devil's in the details. And at last week's Goat Island press event – featuring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster – the details were astonishingly few.

Together, Cuomo and Dyster, who are both running for re-election (Dyster next year), announced a $150 million hotel and resort project to be built at sometime in the future at what used to be the Rainbow Centre Mall.

The preferred developers, Uniland and Delaware North, will receive an undisclosed sum from the state to help them build the thing, and be aided by some of the usual suspects like Canon Design.

Uniland's proposal calls for the development of a 300-room, 15-story hotel, an indoor water park, a rooftop restaurant, a daredevil adventure center, a indoor family amusement center as well as retail and restaurant space. The project will be supported by the state-run Empire State Development Corp. as part of Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion" economic development initiative.

"I can get that there's a certain amount of skepticism," said one local developer who asked not to be named for this article. "But there's a world of difference between Uniland and Hamister."

He was referring to Buffalo developer Mark Hamister, who was given $2.75 million in grants through the state's USA Niagara Development Corp., a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corp., which is a government agency created to throw taxpayer's money at rich guys like Hamister to provide vital "development."

The city chipped in and let Hamister have a prime piece of downtown property appraised at more than $1.5 million for $100,000, or seven cents on the dollar. That was in 2013, and thus far he's built nothing in Niagara Falls but he has redeveloped the high rise Tishman Building in Buffalo.

Hamister's nonexistent hotel was the subject of 150 newspaper stories and a couple of dozen TV segments, and was also responsible for the defeat of former City Councilman Sam Fruscione. But you don't hear much about it anymore.

The difference between Hamister and Uniland, the developer told the Niagara Falls Reporter, is that Uniland actually has money.

Past taxpayer subsidized mistake and present site of proposed Wonderfalls, the old Rainbow Mall.

"I mean they say there's going to be a water park," the developer said. "How many square feet will it be? What flag will be on the hotel? What franchise restaurants, what retail? It seems like they ought to have thought it through before they held a press conference."

Dyster criticized the building (Rainbow Mall) the city was gifted with by Baltimore developer David Cordish in 2010.

"It's not even the normal eyesore," Dyster said of the current structure, which has sat mostly vacant for the last 15 years. "It's kind of an iconic eyesore. It's the classic white elephant. This is a building that was created almost as an afterthought to the construction of a parking ramp."

The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute fronting Old Falls Street opened in 2012 and takes up a third of the vacant mall. That space will remain untouched, and Uniland is in talks with Niagara County Community College to expand the school, as well as the college's hospitality programs, into the new structure.

The actual value of the building, which covers two blocks in the heart of Niagara Falls' tourist district, is uncertain. Cordish gave it away but undoubtedly took some sort of tax write off.

The new project will add 300 hotel rooms, themed restaurants, a spa, an indoor water park and a "daredevil adventure center" that will bear the name of famed wire walker Nik Wallenda, developers say.

For his part, Cuomo didn't address his troubles with the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, an agency he set up to much fanfare in 2013 and closed down abruptly in March. It's been widely reported that the commission had uncovered information about six to 12 Albany insiders, some very close to the Cuomo administration.

Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, subpoenaed the commission's records, and is now reportedly targeting Niagara Falls State Sen. George Maziarz and others.

A: The proposed site of Wonderfalls. B: One Niagara. C: The Seneca CasinoD: The Giacomo Hotel, E: The proposed site of the taxpayer subsidized Hamister hotel. F: The Niagara Falls State Park. G. The old Turtle Bldg. H: The Comfort Inn. I: The Old Hotel Niagara (vacant). J. City parking lot. K: Hard Rock Cafe.

Instead, Cuomo dwelled on what a great thing the Wonder Falls development – which is what they're calling the Rainbow Center project – will be.

"Today is about seizing the moment and today is about building the future and today is about investing in assets," Cuomo said. "We're going to take that Rainbow Mall, that has been a liability, and Uniland, in a public-private sector partnership, is going to make it a great tourism destination.

"It was a fantastic opportunity waiting to be developed," he added.

Michael Montante, vice president of Uniland, said the group will begin the engineering and design work for the project, an undertaking that could take as long as 18 months because of the size and scope of the plans.

"Our team is not going to rush the project," Montante said. "We want to make sure that when the project stands, it's going to be done right and it's going to be something that we're all proud to put our name on."

Fortunately for Cuomo and Dyster, that 18-month window will cover both of their re-election bids, Cuomo's this November and Dyster's in 2015. It will lend an appearance that they're actually doing something to improve Niagara Falls.

Whether the project will actually be built or drag on for years like Hamister's hotel, only time will tell. And how much in state and local taxpayer money will go toward building it no one will say.

But Niagara Falls has a long history of "major developments" that never went anywhere, from the Rainbow Centre Mall itself to the giant hole on Niagara and Rainbow that was supposed to have been an attraction called AquaFalls.

Local residents have every right to be skeptical. Several decades of broken promises and failures have given them that right.





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