By Michele Deluca
Niagara Gazette —
When Toronto developer Harry Stinson first saw the auction ad for the Hotel Niagara, he thought the $145,000 opening bid was for a single unit in the building.
Such is the mindset of a man who made his reputation renovating old buildings and turning them into condominiums in Toronto, and who started doing so when no one in that Canadian city thought people would buy condos.
Apparently, Stinson is used to hearing “can’t” from people who think his ideas won’t work.
His very first job was at restaurant he opened himself. It offered health food in the days when Toronto was far more conservative. He was told no one would want to eat in a place where you couldn’t smoke or get a steak.
“In the sixties, Toronto was gray and boring. I opened this funky restaurant and it turned out to be very successful,” he recalled recently while standing in front of his building, Hotel Niagara, after taking a tour of the Niagara County Community’s College’s new Culinary Institute nearby.
That health food restaurant set Stinson on his path as a real estate developer. He built himself quite a reputation for success in Toronto until a much publicized lawsuit over a financial district condo property soured his taste for the big city. He moved to Hamilton where he is currently engaged in renovating a Harry Potter-styled old school into loft condominiums.
The man noted for building affordable lofts in forgotten places, such as an old candy factory and an old knitting mill, was welcomed by Hamilton with open arms. And on that fateful day when he saw the auction ad for the Hotel Niagara, he turned his attention to Niagara Falls.
He saw the property, fell in love and eventually worked out a deal to buy it with another developer. Shortly after, his fellow-buyer was cut loose and the property was all Stinson’s.
These days, he is planning for redemption. The man who some in the Toronto media have called “The Condo King” feels as if he has to recover his reputation,tarnished, he believes, by the lawsuit over 1 King Street West Condominiums.
“This is a recovery project,” he said of the Hotel Niagara. “If I can do it right, it will change my life, too.”
He is welcome in the Falls, but with no more or less enthusiasm than any other developer of his stature. Local officials seemed pleased with his past successes but cautious of expecting miracles of any developer.
“He is a vision guy, definitely,” said Mayor Paul Dyster of Stinson. “He see the Hotel Niagara up and operating and contributing to a vibrant downtown.”
The mayor commended Stinson’s history of innovative reuse of historic buildings and noted, “He seems more like an artist or a musician than a developer,” said Dyster, adding that often “those type of people have a vision for projects that other people can’t see. And those type of people are critical to getting projects like the Hotel Niagara done.”
Stinson, who plans to start reconstruction efforts in a matter of weeks, said the $2 million he used to cover the costs of acquiring the building was all private cash, but he also has been meeting with local development leaders to see where he can receive support.
“At this point we’re in discussions as to the kind of assistance he may be able to receive,” said USA Niagara president Chris Schoepflin, who noted that in his role at the helm of the state-created business support agency, he is always cautiously optimistic about any new developer.
“We’re rooting for him and we’re working with him. But a project is not completed until we cut the ribbon,” Schoepflin said.
As for Stinson,he is happy to be working in the United States, and especially Niagara Falls, a city for which he has developed an affection.
“In Canada, they tell people like me ‘don’t be crazy.’ In the states it seems more likely they’ll say ‘OK, you’ve had some setbacks but what’s on your plate today?’” he said.
Stinson said he plans to “promote the hell” out of the the Hotel Niagara, and provide an “experience” for guests that includes unique touches such as Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra look-alikes at the bar or in the lobby, and his collection of classic limousines parked out front and ready to roll.
At this stage, Stinson said he’s going to rely on the same philosophy of success that got him started. “If you have an interesting product, people will flock to it.”