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Trying a Falls rescue – from Toronto <br> Known for his panache, developer sets his sights on $26 million remake of Hotel Niagara

NIAGARA FALLS – Many people remember the Hotel Niagara as the grand palace that once played host to Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra.

But those are distant memories.

More recently, the vacant hotel has resembled Buffalo's Statler Towers before its latest attempted rescue.

That is, a developer swoops in every few years with big plans for a revival. He loses money, abandons the project and lets it slip into further decay.

Harry Stinson thinks he can change that history.

The Toronto developer says he is moving forward with a $26 million remake of the 12-story hotel, which sits in the center of the downtown tourism district.

He has hired Waterbourne Construction Advisors of Getzville to restore the decaying lobby to its original grandeur.

Before the end of the year, construction officials say, workers will also begin to convert 10 floors of closet-small single hotel rooms into two-room suites.

Plans also call for a renovated grand ballroom, a 100-seat movie theater, meeting space and four restaurants.

Although the renovation is in the design stage now, Stinson says, it will be up and running by next summer.

He acknowledges the challenges of taking on a such a large-scale project that others have failed to complete.

"I'll be candid," Stinson said in a recent interview. "This project is a comeback for me."

"At this stage," he added, "I see this as an enormous opportunity."

In some ways, though, the "Condo King" of Toronto is already different than the developers who have come before him.

The rail-thin Canadian resembles a long-distance runner more than a high-rolling deal-maker.

He delights in running up the stairs of his hotels – hundreds of flights a day, he says – and prefers cut-off shorts to pinstriped suits.

But he has also developed a reputation of being, as one Canadian magazine put it, "Toronto's answer to Donald Trump – big talk, big stakes, big ego."

His landmark project is One King West, a 51-story skyscraper in downtown Toronto that included the renovation of a historic bank building.

Stinson still marvels at the attention to detail in the handcrafted woodwork and marble staircases.

But the experience of developing the $150 million hotel and condominiums also included a legal battle with his business partner that eventually landed Stinson on the outside of One King West.

"The reasonable suits never get anything done because they're too reasonable," Stinson said. "This [Hotel Niagara project] is personal for me."

Niagara Falls will soon find out if its storied hotel will become a Stinson rebound project or another deal gone awry.

If the heart of downtown is finally starting to take shape along Old Falls Street, with the $30 million Niagara County Community College culinary institute and Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino's Giacomo boutique hotel, the Hotel Niagara sits as a gaping hole in that strengthening fabric.

Indeed, it is the first sight for many tourists entering downtown or emerging from the Niagara USA visitor center.

Other hotels around the 1924 Art Deco building have been renovated, but the Niagara has continued to decay since its condemnation two years ago.

The building went up for sale last year after James T. Cook Jr. and his wife, Judith, failed to complete their $15 million renovation plan.

If restored properly, the hotel would fill a need for luxury hotels in the downtown area.

Many of the hotels around the cataracts are in the "budget" price range, development officials have said, and travelers often look to Buffalo or Niagara Falls, Ont., for other options.

"The tourism people have told us, ‘Thank God, you're finally building something where … when people ask us, ‘Where's there a nice place to stay?' we can say, ‘Right there,'?" Stinson said.

Rooms will range from $150 to $200 per night, he said.

"When you're pushing $89, people wonder, ‘Well, what's wrong here?'?" Stinson said. "If you're giving a little more, people will pay more. I can't beat [the budget hotels] on the price, but I can beat them on the product."

Like others before him, Stinson has promised that product will include a nod to the storied history of the building.

Older staff members will be hired to pose as Sinatra or Monroe or other characters from an earlier era.

In addition, a glass-enclosed patio will be built on the hotel's roof to provide a breathtaking view of the Niagara River.

"We're not going to just open up the doors in the summer and boogie off to Florida in the winter," Stinson said.

Instead, the hotel hopes to attract businesses with restored office and meeting space and a variety of catering options.

The Niagara County Industrial Development Agency recently accepted Stinson's application for a 10-year agreement for payment in lieu of taxes,as well as $5.6 million in sales tax and mortgage recording tax abatements.

Stinson is also working with the state's Historic Preservation Office to obtain tax credits.

The number of public incentives available surprised the Canadian developer.
"You want to do something up there [in Canada], it's ‘Do it!'?" he said. "You come down here, and it's like, ‘What can we give you?'?"

Still, the incentives made it feasible for Stinson to restore the building to a hotel rather than condos, he said, which is the ideal use for the structure.

To reverse the fortunes of the decaying gem, Stinson knows he will also have to reverse long-held development attitudes in the Falls.

"There's an assumption of failure rather than an assumption of success," he said. "[But] it isn't impossible to do things."

His ultimate goal for the Hotel Niagara, he said, is simple:

"To let the brand be what it was meant to be."