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Ex-Central Terminal developer takes aim at Adam's Mark

Harry Stinson just won't give up.

After two disappointing hospitality ventures with Hotel Niagara and the Central Terminal, the Canadian businessman is taking another crack at a major Western New York redevelopment project worth tens of millions of dollars.

This time, though, he's set his sights on a privately owned building with an existing hotel business, instead of tackling a vacant and neglected property that's in public hands. He's betting that will not only make the effort more controllable, but will keep him out of the political fray.

Stinson, 64, is seeking to buy downtown Buffalo's Adam's Mark Hotel, the city's largest hotel and one of its oldest, with nearly 500 rooms just off the Niagara Thruway and two blocks from Niagara Square.

Stinson is negotiating a final purchase contract with the current owner, Visions Hotels of Corning, subject to due diligence and additional reviews. He hopes to close on the purchase by October, "early enough to book Christmas parties," he said.

Visions Chief Financial Officer Minesh Patel confirmed that the hotel company is negotiating exclusively with Stinson right now, but cautioned against getting too far ahead. "We've had other things come and go previously," Patel said. "We'll see what materializes. There are still a lot of things that need to be worked out before I would consider the deal done."

Neither he nor Visions would disclose the purchase price, which may still be adjusted, but Stinson characterized the discussions as "very advanced." He said he's put down a deposit that is being held in trust and arranged financing through a private investor.

"We haven't closed yet, but we're well past the stage of stressing the basic details," he said. "This is a hell of a lot more than two guys with a napkin in a bar."

The Hamilton, Ont.-based developer is planning a major transformation that will restore the 42-year-old establishment into a higher-level destination for big conferences, events and parties. He's hoping to leverage the hotel's size – it can fit 1,400 in the ballroom and several thousand in the larger meeting space – to once again attract more large events as a convention host.

"Buffalo is coming onto the radar of event organizers," Stinson said. "You have to have a certain capacity of hotel rooms to compete. This has the rooms and the event space."

Developer Harry Stinson had hoped to restore the Central Terminal in Buffalo. Now he has his sights set on the Adam's Mark. (John Hickey/Buffalo News file photo)

In particular, he plans to upgrade the food service – where his expertise lies – by bringing in a "celebrity chef" destination restaurant. And he wants to enhance the guest rooms, the conference center, the fitness facility and the pool and spa area – "all the elements of making the place more full-service and more fun."

Additionally, he wants to rebrand it as the Buffalo Grand Hotel, keeping it as an independent rather than going with a national or international hotel company, so he can have more flexibility in pricing and design. He's aiming for an "upper-upscale" quality, like a "W" hotel.

"Our plan is to give it a bit of a different flair," he said. "It's going to get quite a makeover. We're not closing, but the place does need freshening up."

The hotel would be managed by Stephen Fitzmaurice, Stinson's owner's representative and a hospitality veteran. Fitzmaurice, 61, is the former chief operating officer of One HSBC Center, now One Seneca Tower, but he previously managed the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, the New York Hilton, the Los Angeles Hilton and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.

In all, Stinson expects to spend more than $30 million on the project, including the purchase price. The goal is to finish the project by spring 2018. "The focus will be on events and the social hub that it used to be," he said. "We're planning on making the place very much alive."

In the meantime, Patel and Stinson stressed that it's business as usual for the hotel. "This is our busy season," Patel said.

The sale, if completed, could represent a new opportunity for the Adam's Mark, which employs 200 to 250 at various times during the year. Originally opened in 1978 as the Buffalo Hilton, the nine-story hotel has 484 guest rooms and 72,000 square feet of meeting space, including what used to be a tennis club. In addition to the pool, health club and a lobby bar and restaurant, it also includes 500 parking spaces, of which 400 are within a ramp.

The hotel has gone through several owners, but was most recently acquired by Visions in February 2009 for $8.87 million. The prior owner, Chartres Lodging Group LLC, purchased the hotel a year earlier as part of a larger acquisition of other former Adam's Marks in St. Louis, Indianapolis, Dallas and Houston.

"It's not uncommon for these very large conference hotels to go through periods of needing makeover," Stinson said. "It's more often that they become available because the economics of a makeover are quite extensive."

Visions is a veteran hospitality firm, with over 20 hotels in Western and Central New York and the Southern Tier, including others in Buffalo.

In August 2010, Visions said it would invest $5.6 million to convert the hotel to the Crowne Plaza brand, in exchange for tax breaks. But that plan never came to complete fruition, and the company has since put the Adam's Mark back on the market. Patel said Visions has "entertained" multiple offers in the last 18 months, although "nothing has materialized yet."

"There are a lot of things in a business deal that have to transpire for a deal to come together," he added.

For Stinson, whose past success lies in adaptive reuse and hospitality projects in Canada, this is his third go-around in Western New York. The developer previously tried projects at the Hotel Niagara in Niagara Falls and the Central Terminal in Buffalo, but was unable to make those projects work.

Stinson said he still hopes to pursue a redevelopment of the Central Terminal, which he sees as a complementary offering with the Adam's Mark despite the distance between them.

In the meantime, Stinson is already developing plans for the new look of the rooms and lobby, which would be the first areas construction crews would tackle. He wants to create a model suite on the first floor, to showcase the new decor and will then start renovations with the top floor and work one floor at a time.

Work would commence as soon as he completes the purchase and takes over the operation, and he hopes to have it completed within six months. "We want to be able to hit the ground running the day the turnover happens," he said. "We don't have to shut down."

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