Harry Stinson is an unpretentious visionary, and with his sharpened business sense he finds opportunity where others haven't. He sees an immense amount of unrealized opportunity in Hamilton.
By Trey Shaughnessy
Published January 08, 2009
On December 17, 2008, I stood on John Street between Main and King, in front of the old Liaison College and Crazy Horse saloon buildings. I was waiting to meet with Harry Stinson, who was about to unveil his plan to convert these buildings into a new boutique condo/hotel called the Hamilton Grand.
Harry, widely known in Toronto as the "Condo King", is famous for his condo developments there and credited with the start of the building-conversion format of turning former warehouses into trendy residential lofts, after the success of the Candy Factory at Queen West and Shaw.
The Candy Factory, a converted six-storey building that originally housed the Ce De Candy Company, helped spur the revitalization of what is now being called "Queen West West".
Harry is also famous for co-building One King West in Toronto, arguably Canada's finest skyscraper, a soaring blade of glass at the corner of Yonge and King Streets rising from a restored 1914 bank building.
One King West in Toronto (RTH file photo)
A few minutes after 2:00, waiting outside 27 John Street South, I called Harry Stinson's home and was told, "Harry is usually pretty good with these things." Then I saw someone approach in a fast-paced run-slide on the slushy sidewalks and realized it was Harry Stinson.
"Harry," I called, as he slid to a stop on the slush. He was wearing a windbreaker and wrinkled grey khakis. Fixing his wind-blown hair, he said, "Sorry I'm late, I had a meeting at the waterfront." Harry ran from the waterfront to our meeting!
This is Harry. He doesn't drive, but collects cars. His manor on Bull's Lane overlooks the escarpment, but he wears a ten-dollar windbreaker. He's a big-shot developer, but doesn't have a cell phone.
Harry may be a big-shot developer, but he's not a big-shot. He's an unpretentious visionary, and with his sharpened business sense he finds opportunity where others haven't. He sees an immense amount of unrealized opportunity in Hamilton.
Harry has made a home in Hamilton and after only living here 11 months, he seems like someone whose has lived here all his life - Harry is so Hammer.
Harry Stinson at the site of the proposed Hamilton Grand
We talked for over an hour in a conversation that meandered across several different topics, from Stinson's preliminary view of Hamilton ("the view from the Burlingon [Skyway] bridge") to his discovery of the city's hidden potential, including the Lister Block ("I would have loved to have got my hands on it, but what's the point in getting into that donnybrook?") - and, of course, the stalled Royal Connaught, which he tried and failed to convert into a major hotel with an attached thin tower last year.
Asked if he still wants to build a signature tower, Stinson answered, "Absolutely!" though he said his approach has changed as he has learned more about the community.
He says his discovery of Hamilton was "fascinating". "The people are there, the buildings are there, the geography is there, and the desire is there, so that was exciting."
He shared his frustration with "the resistance from the ususal established economic forces, shall we say" and what he calls Hamilton's "civic pessimism" of people who are "resigned to failure" and have an attitude of "yeah, it would be great but it'll never happen," which he warned "becomes self-fulfilling".
He observed that he is part of a quiet movement of people coming into Hamilton and changing the landscape. "People from outside Hamilton are coming in, in larger and larger numbers, and people in Hamilton are going to discover that they've given away the store - it's going to change whether you like it or not."
Talking about the Hamilton Grand, Stinson drew comparisons to the Windsor Arms in Yorkville and the Gladstone on Queen West in the sense that they are both distinctive boutiques. Each has a "dynamic, different ambience: you know you're there." He wants the Grand to fulfil the historical role of the Connaught: a place to see and be seen.
The operation and financial structure would be similar to One King West: an independently operated "personality hotel in the core" where the units are individually owned condos that share in the revenues from the hotel - room rentals, restaurant and bar profits, and so on.
This business model is still new, and the concepts - a condo trying to minimize costs and a hotel trying to maximize service - are somewhat contradictory, so running the Grand will be a balancing act.
Asked about the viability of a new project during a recession, Stinson responded, "This is a great time to be constructing." He pointed out, "A year ago, contractor were all booked solid, but now they're hungry for work and bidding competitively."
He added, "If you look at some of the most interesting buldings throughout the world, they were built in difficult times, often, because you could actually put together these deals and people wanted the work."
Three things Stinson would change about Hamilton:
Attitude - "I think it would be a good thing for the city if all Hamiltonians could just erase from their behaviour for one year the negativity. Let's have a moratorium on negativity."
Transit - Don't count on Metrolinx to have the money for its planned mass transit projects. "Mass transportation around the world is still Medieval ... do we have anything better than large steel boxes on rails? Even though they are a little 'Buck Rogers' now, [light rail vehicles] are still big steel boxes on rails. That's ridiculous. There's got to be a better way."
New Economy - "Hamilton needs to prepare for life after manufacturing and steel mills." The city should start by mandating no pollution in city businesses to improve the city's image and attract high-value workers and employers in clean industries.
Over the course of the interview, we discussed the business of being a property developer ("development is about having a vision for a piece of land and keeping at that vision for the many, many years it takes to see it executed"); the importance of design and architecture in a building ("people gravitate toward interesting buildings"); and even the auto industry bailout ("if these guys couldn't hack it before, why are we giving them hundreds of billions of dollars so they can continue to futz around?").
Harry concluded that artists, creative people and early adopters looking for "ambiance" are being squeezed out of Toronto and are looking for the next big thing. He thinks they might find it in Hamilton.
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