by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — For developer Harry Stinson, the secret to success in renovating and finally opening the Hotel Niagara lies in the power of a cell phone.
During a tour the hotel owner provided approximately 50 members of Preservation Buffalo Niagara Monday, Stinson said a member of an international hotel chain he's set to align the Rainbow Boulevard property with told him the lobby is memorable enough for visitors to whip out their phones and take pictures.
"When we had one of the guys from the unknown, or rather, unnamed chain, with us, he pulled me aside and said 'this place certainly passes the cell phone test,' " Stinson said, explaining the test measures whether guests of the hotel want to simply go up to the counter, check in and go to their rooms – or pull out their cell phones and take pictures of the lobby and share with their friends.
"This is a cell phone building," he said. "When we were here last summer, we'd have the doors open. And it was fascinating watching people, no matter whether they were local tourists – by that I mean American – a Japanese family, anybody, really, they would all have some sort of reaction when they walked in. They wanted to know if we were renovating the hotel. They asked that specifically, because the building has a hotel feel. It looks like a hotel."
Hotel Niagara, which Stinson said will be associated with an international hotel chain he won't divulge the name of yet, has had a bit of a checkered past, at least recently. Considered one of the more attractive hotel properties on the American side, the building was a shining example of American architecture in the area when it opened in 1925.
But after it closed its doors, ownership couldn't make plans work. Its previous owners, Amidee Hotels out of Texas, failed to complete a renovation project, gutting the building from top to bottom.
Stinson bought the property in summer 2011 from Vancouver hotelier Jamal Kara, who'd bought it from foreclosure auction earlier in the year.
The Hamilton, Ont.-based Stinson said he's hoping to have the hotel open in summer 2013, he told the tour group Monday. He said he just completed his financing requests, a portion of the process he said took longer than he'd expected. Focus has shifted to selecting the numerous contractors for both restoration work and new construction, he added.
"The big test will really be from January to May next year," he said. "When you have a small project, it's easier to finance it yourself. And when you have a big, massive project, the Wall Street people are jumping at the chance to help. This is halfway in between."
Once the hotel is ready to open, Stinson said he's expecting to employ between 150 and 200 people.
As part of the tour, which included a trip to the roof despite inclement weather, Stinson ran through a brief description of his plans for the building. He said the roughly $26 million project will enlarge and modernize the rooms, turning them into fully-functional living spaces. As they're enlarged, he'll cut down the number from 193 to 160, which will include two honeymoon suites on the roof, complete with terraces.
For the most part, the historic renovation of the property will focus on the first three floors, which will be public space. The ballroom, restaurants – there will be two, he said – and lobby will be built to meet historic specifications, which Stinson is currently researching so he knows what to do.
In fact, he said there's virtually nothing in the public sphere detailing the way the hotel looked in its heyday. He petitioned those on the tour for historic photos they may have showing off the building's interior.
As for those on the tour, Monday was a treat. Tom Yots, executive director of PBN, greeted the group with words of fond remembrance for those in the crowd who knew of the Hotel Niagara before its doors closed.
He said the plans for the building, if they all come to fruition, could make the hotel a destination for tourists all over the planet.
"There are dreamers in this world, and (Stinson) certainly is one of them," he said. "What he has planned for the hotel is going to make this a destination for the entire country, if not the world."
Gary and Linda Tornquist, of the Town of Tonawanda, said they enjoyed the opportunity to step foot in the historic hotel, something they never did when it was open.
Having never experienced the hotel before it closed its doors, they compared the vision Stinson has with that of Rocco Termini, the man who recently completed renovations of Buffalo's Hotel Lafayette.
"This is awesome," Linda Tornquist said. "Hopefully this can become a centerpiece here. I can just see this fellow's vision with this place."
"It was nice to see a unique building such as this," Gary Tornquist added. "You get to see the bones, you get to see the insides of the structure."