Niagara Falls Council Gave Break for Vacant Land

12:15 AM, Aug 2, 2013   |    comments
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NIAGARA FALLS - Glenn Choolokian already said it once.

"We're all for development, but the taxpayers can't afford to fund these projects anymore," the Niagara Falls council chairperson said last week, minutes after voting to table Mark Hamister's multi-million dollar hotel development project.

Choolokian, along with fellow council members Sam Friscione and Robert Anderson Jr., have made their stance quite clear on the Hamister issue. They're not ready to move forward with the project -- estimated to bring upwards of $40 million to this long-struggling region due to sales tax revenues and job creation -- partly because they say the original agreement to sell Hamister the land for $100,000 doesn't accurately reflect the value of the property. The city received that parcel as a gift and currently uses it as a parking lot, but the three council members claim they're not willing to sell land to Hamister for less than what they think it's worth. They also claim the resolution gives the mayor too much control over the negotiations, among other issues, but they've mainly touted their roles as protectors of the taxpayers.

"We're not in the business of funding people's projects or dreams," Choolokian said last week.

Except in January, they funded somebody else's dreams.

And those people helped fund one of the city councilman's campaigns.

This all stems from a building called The Turtle in Niagara Falls. Owned by Niagara Falls Development LLC, the building has sat empty for years, ever since a Native American museum closed. NFR filed an Article 7 to reduce the $1.5 million assessment of the land and pay fewer taxes to the city of Niagara Falls.

Instead of going to court, the city council consulted legal advice and eventually reached a settlement in January to lower the assessment of the land by about $600,00, meaning NFR would pay tens of thousands of dollars less in taxes. According to Councilwoman Kristin Grandinetti, the theory was that they could avoid having to pay for another assessment of the land, as well as legal fees, by simply reaching a settlement.

"It's something we decided as a group," Grandinetti said.

The vote passed unanimously.

That means the three city council members who don't want to sell the land to Hamister for less than what they think it's worth already voted to give NFR a break on its assessment fewer than six months ago.

"How can you look at that, and act this way on this project? It makes no sense to me," Grandinetti said.

Fruscione stood by his vote, claiming he was following advice from legal counsel.

"Corporation council recommended to us that it was a fair assessment," Fruscione said.

Interestingly, campaign disclosure records show that Niagara Falls Redevelopment LLC is currently the second-highest contributor to the Friends of Sam Fruscione re-election campaign. On Dec. 5, 2012, fewer than two months before he voted to lower the Turtle's assessment, he received $300 from NFR. And on April 24, 2013, he then received a $500 contribution from NFR. That $800 represents about six percent of the $13,273 in his fund, but only Indiana Ocean LLC has contributed more money so far ($1,000).

"Holy cow, 800 dollars?" Fruscione said when confronted with the number by 2 On Your Side, downplaying the total. "I'm very grateful to them and I thank them. That's pretty much it."

Fruscione also took $300 from NFR in 2009.

Grandinetti said she has not met with Friscione or the other council members who voted to table the Hamister project, and the council won't meet again until after the summer.

"If this gets screwed up," Grandinetti said, "my heart's going to be broken."




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