Downtown resuscitation project
120-year-old Hamilton Hotel being turned into art studios
July 15, 2009
The Hamilton Spectator
A quartet of Hamilton business people take possession of a dilapidated lodging house in the heart of James Street North today.
By the time they're done and about $1 million later, the 120-year-old Hotel Hamilton will be converted into working studios for the street's burgeoning arts community.
The investors hope to attract artists and creative types -- painters, media artists, videographers, sound editors, maybe accountants and interior designers -- driven out by the high cost of rent in Toronto or who want to move a growing business out of their house.
It's hoped the first tenants could move into James North StudioWorks in October, but city permits and variances must be gotten first.
The imposing three-floor structure at the corner of James and Mulberry has seen better days.
The investors figure it will take weeks and numerous Dumpsters to clear out the building's junked furniture, worn-out carpet and thousands of square feet of plaster -- painted bargain-bin colours of orange, purple and pink.
Glen Norton, a business consultant, partnered with insurance broker Dan Lawrie and lawyers Scott Smith and Mike Clarke to find an old building to bring back to life.
After working out a business plan and looking at several properties, they settled on the old Jamesville hotel for $530,000 from a Toronto-based company that bought it close to three years ago.
They know they've tackled a big job.
None of them has done a project like this but they are passionate about making a difference in the core.
"There are lots of people with vision who see James as the key to the downtown," said Norton.
"We need to establish critical mass and build some momentum," said Smith.
This is considered a key building on James North. It's large, on a corner and right in the middle of redevelopment happening both north and south of Cannon Street.
Known over the years as the Drake and the Siesta, the hotel was built about 1887 for soldiers training at the armouries across the street.
The investors plan to strip the walls down to expose the exterior and interior brick walls.
There are original tongue-and-groove pine floors to refinish, and windows to replace.
Plans call for 17 studios but that could change if artists want bigger spaces. The 9,000-square-foot building will also include a shared boardroom, kitchen and washrooms with showers.
The smallest units will rent for $400 a month, including utilities, with the largest corner units going for $650.
There are four retail units on street level; one is occupied by a laundromat linked to the hotel and another is a jeweller.
The investors hope to attract a co-op gallery for artists and perhaps a European-style coffeehouse.
Randy, a tenant since 1990, says the street needs this building to be turned around. He's now acting as a security guard for the place.
Randy moved in just about the time the colourful and controversial Reverend Ron Burridge bought Hotel Hamilton.
He rented out daily rooms for $100 a day but eventually switched over to monthly rentals to single men for $400 a month.
A former hair colourist and part-time exorcist, Burridge was outspoken about his dislike of Hamilton and what he considered the rampant problems on James North.
His critics believed his building contributed to the drug and prostitution problems he railed against.
He also often blasted the business association on James North and headed an alternate group that held monthly meetings at his hotel.
Burridge took off for Mexico after selling the building.
At one time, there were 22 tenants but that had dwindled to four or five.
They have all cleared out now. Some have left behind a lot of junk -- stained mattresses, clothes strewn about, furniture that looks like it's weathered a flood.
But there are some treasures, too. The group plans a street sale to get rid of clawfoot tubs and some of the memorabilia of the old hotel.
When it's finished, the building will be run by the Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts, a local nonprofit that manages three other artist facilities.
"It's fantastic," executive director Jeremy Freiburger says of the new project. "This is one of those spaces on James that tons of people have talked about for years. ... Corner lots tend to be anchors for chunks of the street."
And there is growing demand for spots for artists to work, he says. The ICCA has a waiting list of 25 to 30 people.
Teachers Credit Union, which is financing the James North StudioWorks project, is behind another seven or eight developments on James North, says Tom Wilson, director of commercial services.
He says TCU is firmly behind efforts to resuscitate the downtown.
"We don't have to convince somebody in Toronto why this is a good investment for Hamilton," he said.
"When you have the commitment from these kinds of individuals willing to invest their savings and energy, why wouldn't you want to help those people out?"
To inquire about the project, contact Glen Norton at 905-870-1632 or email@example.com
or Jeremy Freiburger at 905-548-0111.