WILSON: Who’s to blame for this Main Street shame?
A dozen years ago this month, they shut down Bridge's Shell at Main and John.
Al Bridge had flown the Shell flag in downtown Hamilton for 63 years.
But stations where they pumped your gas and fixed your car had fallen from favour. Business was down and Al and son Martin knew the end was near.
Spectator writer Mary K. Nolan went down to document the farewell. Martin told her he was just going across the street, putting on a jacket and tie and joining the support staff at the courthouse.
"Every time I go to work, I'll pass this place," he said then. "I worry about it being all overgrown and abandoned."
Take a look at that corner today. In the very heart of a core that shows every sign of coming back, the site that was Bridge's Shell is downtown's shame. Who knew weeds could grow so high? Some are now like trees.
What happened here? Who can we blame? Could it be Harry Stinson, the Toronto developer who decided a decade or so ago to make Hamilton home?
One day in the spring of 2009, 200 people gathered at the Art Galley of Hamilton to see Stinson unveil a project he called the Hamilton Grand. It would be a $25-million project, he said, a 13-storey hotel-condo.
But nothing happened at Main and John. Signs went up, signs came down, fences collapsed, garbage blew in, weeds went wild.
So we need to talk to Stinson. We know we'll find him at work. He does 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week.
As of last month, his office is in the enormous house of history that is Cannon Knitting Mills. Parked outside is his long-as-a-boat 1978 Lincoln Town Car. This man always thinks big.
Stinson bought this pre-Confederation property at Cannon and Mary for $3 million a few months ago and his dreams for the place have no bounds.
But first, Mr. Stinson, what about Main and John? Everybody thinks that corner is your mess.
"True," he says. "City Hall thinks it. The media thinks it. But it's not me."
He says he was never the owner, just the public face. The corner cycled through three backers. Each time the plans changed, each time they then collapsed.
Stinson's travels around town take him past the jungle that was to be the Grand.
How does it feel to see it today?
"Angry and frustrated … I have boxes full of mouldering files — sales agreements, designs, environmental reports … I had to give back deposits three times. That's embarrassing and exhausting, five years of looking like an idiot."
Money is always part of the problem. But Stinson says it was also lack of vision.
"It's difficult to get financial partners to buy into ideas. They want a formula."
Stinson, 63, says he's finally learned a lesson. From here on, no more partners.
"I figure I have 30 years of working life left," he says.
He does the Wentworth stairs four times daily, has a resting heart rate of 42, weighs 124 pounds with zero fat.
The Stinson school project, a brave and difficult condo conversion, is complete. His Gibson school project is 60 per cent sold.
But it is the knitting mill that stokes his fires these days. He runs while conducting a tour, charging up old stairs, leaping across small lakes on the roof. He sees a hotel, apartments, a restaurant, a distillery, event space, a music club in the cavernous boiler room.
"This is going to be a home run," he promises.
And at Main and John, will someone ever get the game underway?
Next at bat looks to be a guy named Pete Waters of the Rockwater Group, a construction outfit in Waterloo.
Waters says he has absolutely nothing to declare right now. Maybe next month.
While we're waiting, somebody should haul out a Weed Whacker.