Editorial by Sophia Smith
Niagara Falls hosts 22 million visitors per year, and with arguably limited quality places to stay on the American side - that is, until Mark Hamister's hotel project is complete.
The recent agreement, which was signed by the Hamister Group, the state and City of Niagara Falls, will begin the next phase of the development of 310 Rainbow Blvd. Hamister plans to make the hotel a multi-use edifice - hotel, retail space and 24 market-rate apartments ranging in size from 900 to 1,800 square feet. The five-story project is expected to cost $25.3 million with construction to begin by the end of 2014.
The Plaza Hotel in New York has Angelo Galasso, Assouline books, Douglas Hannant, The Eloise shop and tea parties, Gramercy Park Flower Shop, The Leather Spa, Town and Country Living, and a gourmet food hall among other retail attractions. Hamister envisions these types of retail offerings on a scale that will be successful in Niagara Falls and mostly to family travelers and budgets.
Hamister does not take the credit for this exciting Niagara Falls project, however. His son Daniel, 35, presented the idea to his father and the elder Hamister agreed it was a worthwhile business venture.
Things in Niagara Falls don't always run as smoothly as developers hope at the genesis of many projects. Remember the virtual gift of a Ghermezian brothers "Mega Mall" that was shot down by a former mayor, and of course projects like the AquaFalls and many others that were supposed to happen and revitalize downtown Niagara Falls, but never did? The Niagara Falls City Council originally voted down this Hamister project, until Gov. Cuomo intervened and convinced Hamister to give Niagara Falls one more chance. The City Council then changed its vote to a 3-2 approval and gave the green light to the Hamister hotel project.
The real question is how the Hamister project wasn't a 5-0 instant approval with the Niagara Falls City Council, considering the current development scene in Niagara Falls - which is virtually non-existent? The city should have been welcoming the Hamister Group with open arms of roses and a red carpet - since there aren't exactly throngs of developers and investors breaking down the door to do projects downtown.
Hamister envisions an upscale, yet family-affordable hotel along with something to do. The hotel is expected to be affiliated with an upscale, internationally known chain such as Hilton, Hyatt or Intercontinental.
Recently, this writer had the occasion to pose the following questions to Mark Hamister:
•How will your hotel differ from what is currently being offered in Niagara Falls?
"We will provide a better quality product at a reasonable price. We will have a restaurant, a banquet center, a pool and other amenities, which the present hotels do not. We will offer two meals a day, either breakfast and lunch or breakfast and dinner."
•The state is granting $2.7 million toward this project; how is that justifiable to the taxpayers of Niagara Falls?
"We will be supporting the local economy with many new jobs, and keeping people employed in the local marketplace. We will be attracting and keeping tourists in the area for an extended amount of time (at least overnight), which will have a positive fiscal impact on the City of Niagara Falls. We will also be putting 310 Rainbow Blvd., back on the tax rolls as well as contributing to the county's bed tax.
"Most importantly, we will be providing a high-end banquet center and affordable, high-end rental housing in the project that would not be otherwise affordable without the state grant."
•When do you expect the project to start?
"Now that the agreement is signed, we anticipate a short turnaround time for a project of this size, and expect shovel in ground by the second half of 2014."
•What will the exterior be like? Something unique?
"Working with our national hotel franchise company, we intend to instruct our architect to develop an exterior design that reflects and complements the vision of a new, vibrant Niagara Falls."
•How will you make this project more appealing to tourists?
"No. 1, we will be appealing to families. We need to do more to keep families here. We are employing a Disney-like attitude in our design and approach. We will be focusing on what kids and their families want to encourage them to stay longer in Niagara Falls."
•Ultimately it would be ideal to have projects like Broadway on the Beach in Myrtle Beach and Downtown Disney in Orlando, where there are restaurants, shops, theaters and fun activities. What can the City of Niagara Falls do to make something like this happen?
"Niagara Falls should be one of the top destinations in New York state. The governor and the mayor have a laser focus on a family-friendly vision for the re-birth of Niagara Falls as a destination location. We applaud them both for their most recent challenge to bring more family-friendly entertainment options to the Falls. This is exactly what Niagara Falls needs next. The mayor needs the City Council to be on his side, and they need to work together to make it happen."
•What else can the city be doing?
"The city and state need a training center to train (or re-train) service industry workers. Disney, for example, trains their workers for a month and a half, and it shows in everything they do. People in New York state want jobs and, as a community, we need to focus on training our local people. It would be ideal to hire a few Disney trainees to teach local people service skills. We need to understand the needs, wants and desires of our hotel guests and make them feel valued and important. We (the hotel industry) are value-oriented in actions, not in words."
•How do you incorporate the Disney attitude into your employees and hotels?
"We start with our foundation in values by having our employees sign a declaration that vows honesty, integrity, work ethic, accountability, respect and trust. Each of our employees signs this declaration when they begin working with us, and the signatures are displayed at each of our properties. Next, we look for people who, through their behavior and their beliefs, share our commitment to service for others."
•Were you surprised when Gov. Cuomo became directly involved?
"I never expected the governor to become involved, but to be honest, I did not know nor have never met the governor prior to this project. I respect him and admire his dedication to the state and his commitment to put community first. I have become a Gov. Cuomo supporter in the process. I believe that this governor is committed to doing the right things for the right reasons."
It is extremely exciting not only for Niagara Falls to have this huge project on the horizon, but perhaps more importantly for the people of Niagara Falls to have hope in the economic future of their city. The forthcoming millions of dollars in future hotel taxes, new consumer spending in local shops, restaurants and attractions in Niagara Falls can surely only be a good thing for our community.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this editorial are solely those of the author.