Ed Riley saved the historic Hotel Syracuse after the long-shuttered downtown fixture faced an uncertain future.
Now, the developer is looking into restoring the former Hotel Niagara, the once-grand structure in Niagara Falls – with its storied past, brushed by a president and Hollywood glamour – that closed its doors in 2007.
On Wednesday, Riley was one of more than 50 people – including developers from Buffalo, Niagara Falls, New York City and Canada – who attended an informational meeting and tour of the 12-story Classical Revival building.
“We like to do historic rehabs that have significance to their communities and impact them in a very positive way, similar to what we did in Syracuse,” said Riley, who heads Brine Wells Development.
“This project is very similar to when we started the Syracuse restoration, and in fact some of the areas are in better shape,” he said. “I think it’s a very good candidate, and if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it the best we can to make sure it gets done right.”
The former hotel at 201 Rainbow Blvd., close to Niagara Falls State Park and Seneca Niagara Casino, is being marketed by USA Niagara Development Corp., a state agency that acquired the building in March.
The agency issued a request for proposals on Aug. 11, seeking a developer interested in bringing lodging, possibly residences and food and beverage services to the former hotel.
The price tag for restoration and reuse costs was estimated by the agency to be in the range of $20 million. The project is eligible for historic tax credits, which helps bring down costs when reviving older buildings, and were used to rehabilitate the Giacomo hotel across the street.
Mayor Paul Dyster was overjoyed by the turnout.
“When I stuck my head into the room it was a very pleasant surprise,” Dyster said. “There is now a sense that downtown Niagara Falls is primed for the next phase of redevelopment, and this is a particularly exciting project.”
Dyster said bringing the hotel back would give the city a psychological boost.
“This has been one of those sort of symbol-of-decline buildings for a long time,” Dyster said. “When you get a turnaround in one of those places, it’s doubly exciting.”
Hotel Niagara was built in 1924 by Niagara Falls businessman Frank Dudley, and designed by prominent Buffalo architects Esenwein & Johnson.
It was once one of Niagara Falls’ finest lodging and banquet establishments, but suffered through decades of neglect, deferred maintenance and multiple changes in ownership. The hotel was a low-budget hotel before being shuttered.
A succession of owners failed to reopen the hotel after the building went through bankruptcy and was condemned by the Niagara Falls Department of Code Enforcement.
Harry Stinson, the building’s previous owner, predicted renovations would be completed by summer 2013. Instead, he wound up selling the property to USA Niagara Development Corp. in March for $4.4 million.
In the hotel’s glory years, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio are believed to have stayed while the actress filmed “Niagara” in 1952. Other guests included President John F. Kennedy, entertainers Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and crime boss Al Capone.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Before tackling the former Hotel Syracuse, Riley was a senior vice president of Boston-based Pyramid Hotel Group, overseeing major renovations of hotels – including the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, the Fairfax in Washington, D.C., and the Claremont Hotel in San Francisco – that had lost their luster.
Riley, 62, stepped forward with a $76 million restoration plan for the Syracuse landmark, and barely two years later the now-gleaming hotel reopened Aug. 19 as the Marriott Syracuse Downtown.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, there for a fundraiser, and Beach Boy Brian Wilson, playing a concert nearby, were there Monday.
Several Niagara Falls developers who operate hotels were also on hand to look at the worn but intact ceiling plaster moldings and columns, ornate lobby, decorative ballroom, faux limestone walls and oak and emerald terrazzo floors.
Faisal Merani, who owns two hotels and is opening a new Doubletree in September in the city, said he had looked at redeveloping the hotel on three previous occasions.
Now, he said, the timing may be right and he plans to submit a proposal.
“It never quite made the financial sense at those points, but with the historic tax credits and the state being involved, I think it’s a feasible project, and more than that I think the business is feasible,” Merani said.
He said he still sees 100 percent of the rooms occupied three months a year, suggesting there is still room for growth.
“The Hotel Niagara is architecturally iconic, has a great location and could be a 4-star hotel, and back to the way it used to be,” Merani said.
Frank Strangio, who owns both the Wingate by Wyndham and the Quality Inn hotels in Niagara Falls, also saw great potential for Hotel Niagara.
“It’s a beautiful building architecturally, it’s in a fantastic location and it’s in the middle of an emerging section of town,” Strangio said.
A company that was once under agreement to buy the hotel was also planning to submit a proposal. Matthew Shollar of Reception Hotels and Resorts in New York City, said the renewed interest had a lot to do with the state’s involvement.
Return to prominence
The state agency believes Hotel Niagara holds a special place in the minds of Niagara Falls residents, and the time is right for the hotel to reclaim its position of prominence.
“The building is in really good condition and has incredible bones, all things considered, and as a Niagara Falls hotel, it stands as second to none,” said Christopher Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development Corp. “Not many modern buildings have what I would consider the soul of Hotel Niagara. That makes it an extra-special building.”
“The bones and structure are in very good shape,” echoed Riley, looking past the peeling plaster, chips of fallen paint and other signs of disrepair. “A lot of the pieces that are here can be reused and recreated. The outside is also in very good shape.”
The building also had a special appeal for younger travelers that Riley said was hard to find.
“It plays into where the hospitality market is going nowadays with millenials,” Riley said. “They like experiential travel, and don’t want to go to the same cookie-cutter hotel over and over. This is the type of building that can do that.”
Developers have until Oct. 14 to respond.