When Paul and Jim Stephen bought an aging motel at the corner of Main Street and Goodrich Road in Clarence nearly 30 years ago, the brothers didn’t have any specific plans for what to do with it.
It was their first diversification outside their core business, selling satellite TV hookups, so they were just looking for long-term investments. And while they weren’t necessarily seeking to be in the hospitality business, they felt the site had some potential to be something much more, given the size of the lot and its location.
So they used the Rock Garden Court Motel as best as they could over the years, for short-term stays and later as studio apartments, until a new opportunity could surface.
This month, that opportunity finally came, as Stephen Development LLC opened its new Willow Square of Clarence mixed-use project on the site of the motel they knocked down two years ago.
The $3.9 million mixed-use project at 9500 Main St. includes 11,000 square feet of first-floor retail space, plus 25 apartments and townhomes.
It is spread among three buildings arranged in a large parking area. And it’s already about half-leased on both the residential and commercial sides.
“We knew the corner would be good. And we were just waiting, like any business,” said Paul Stephen, 56, the firm’s president. “To have this open, compared to what it used to be, it’s exciting.”
Already, three new businesses have taken up half of Willow Square’s six retail spaces. Hair stylist and art space Canvas Salon & Gallery has been open since March, while Destination Massage spa and Murphy Brown’s Craft Beer Emporium will open in the next few weeks. All three owners have years of business experience, but this is the first time they have started on their own, Stephen said. The firm is negotiating for another lease and still has 3,000 square feet open in the rear.
Above them are nine high-end apartments with luxury finishes and features, while another 16 two-story townhomes are aligned in a row in the rear. All are two-bedroom units, and all include stainless-steel Whirlpool kitchen appliances, stacked front-load washer and dryer, dark-brown maple kitchen cabinets, granite countertops, natural wood laminate floors and carpeting, crown mouldings, brown Trex balconies or stamped-concrete patios, bathroom ceramic tiles and vessel-style bathroom sinks.
The 945-square-foot townhomes rent for $1,200 per month, while the apartments are $1,450 for 1,120 square feet or $1,400 for 1,020 square feet. There’s also one 1,800-square-foot unit.
“I wanted to build this to show how good this can be,” Paul Stephen said. “This is perfect for middle-management, somebody who is a manager of Best Buy or something like that, where it’s affordable for them.”
The new development comes amid new interest in the Clarence business community and groups like Discover Main Street Clarence in highlighting events and development opportunities in the town, while actively promoting Main Street for shopping, dining, living and working. The brothers noted that it’s the first of several new projects along the commercial corridor that slices through the town from east to west.
“This is a special project, not only for Stephen Development, but for Main Street in Clarence,” said Paul Stephen, who lives in Clarence. “We have created living and work spaces that have already spawned new businesses and will attract residents to the community. This project is already stimulating new interest in Main Street in Clarence as a great place to be.”
Willow Square is the latest real estate development by the Stephen brothers, whose holdings include various commercial and multi-family properties in Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties. But the former motel property itself – which was constructed in the 1940s, when Main Street was a thoroughfare before the Thruway was built – was their first real estate acquisition in 1986, after they decided to diversify their holdings. “That’s how it all started. You want to have something stable for rental,” said Paul Stephen, who even lived on the motel property at one point. “We kept adding on.”
Today, Stephen Development also owns the 500-unit Rock Oak manufactured housing complex down the road, which was built in several phases ending in 2012, as well as the 16-unit Chalets at Red Rock loft apartment building, built five years ago. Both are just down Main Street, along with an 8.5-acre tract of vacant land that the brothers are eying for their next development, and a larger 90-acre property where the Stephens host Rock the Barn to benefit Meals on Wheels. “This is fun for us,” he said. “We think we’re changing the face of Clarence a little bit.”
The company also built the Sleep Inn & Suites Buffalo Airport hotel on Holtz Road in Cheektowaga in 1997. And it owns the 98-unit Jefferson apartment building and other holdings in Niagara Falls, as well as a portfolio of single-family residential homes and apartments elsewhere in Western New York.
The Stephens started their primary company, Intertech Satellite, in 1984 in a garage, and today the firm – now Intertech Digital Entertainment on Transit Road in Lockport – markets Dish Network as a national distributor and a local fulfillment company. But where that business used to represent about 90 percent of their investment, now their focus is more evenly split between satellite TV and real estate. “Real estate’s coming on pretty strong,” Paul Stephen said. “I’m a happy guy to see Buffalo and what’s happening there right now. The City of Buffalo is great and the suburbs are better. You like to see that. … The future does look way better than it did five years ago.”