Originally published in the Buffalo News
Thinking big at Fort Niagara : Attempt to turn vacant buildings into high-end
resort is embraced
By Teresa Sharp NIAGARA CORRESPONDENT
Published: August 22, 2010, 12:00 AM
YOUNGSTOWN — An internationally acclaimed resort architect and an “Iron Chef”
television celebrity have been recruited by an Amherst developer bent on saving
three deserted brick buildings to create an upscale inn at Fort Niagara State
William Huntress said his firm, Acquest Development, has hired Nunzio DeSantis
of Dallas-based HKS Architects, “probably the best resort architect in the
world,” to draw up plans to save the three historic buildings and create two new
Plans call for converting the 1939 Navy Barracks into a 48-room inn; the
century-old Commandant’s House into 12 luxury suites; creating a new restaurant
and ballroom/convention center; and restoring the Post Theater, built in 1932.
The Palmilla resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, designed by DeSantis, “is 15th on a
list of the top 100 resort hotels in the world,” Huntress said.
In addition, Huntress said he has been talking to Geoffrey Zakarian, a popular
Manhattan chef and owner of two New York restaurants—Town and Country—who has
competed on “Iron Chef America” and been a judge on “Chopped,” both on the Food
“There is a possibility he may become a minority owner, and he will bring his
expertise to the interior design of the restaurant and to the menu,” Huntress
said. “He’s reviewed the plans and he’s excited about it.”
Huntress said he is beginning to get the financing in order for the project,
estimated to cost $15 million to $20 million.
Eileen Larrabee, spokeswoman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and
Historic Preservation in Albany, said the state faces a capital needs backlog of
$650 million and is looking for public-private partnerships to improve some of
“We do not have the money to cover all of the infrastructure, restoration and
rehabilitation work that needs to be done to save these wonderful buildings,”
Larrabee said, “and that’s a fact statewide. We are looking for the type of
partnership to reuse and repurpose these properties that’s consistent with the
mission of our agency. Otherwise, these buildings are, unfortunately, let go.”
Huntress proposes to convert the nearly 60,000-square-foot Navy Barracks into a
top-notch inn, with porches that face the Niagara River. There would be nine
guest rooms on the first floor, along with some meeting rooms, a library, living
room and gift shop; 22 guest rooms on the second floor; and 17 guest rooms on
the third floor, which currently is the attic.
A typical guest room will run 425 to 560 square feet. The basement level will
include the buildings’ mechanics, as well as a spa and fitness area.
The conversion of the Commandant’s House, which sits 300 feet from the river,
would feature four
suites on each of its three floors.
Restoration also is planned for the Post Theater, which, Huntress said, “is in
pretty good shape now.”
“We’ll restore the inside and put in new seating,” he said. “It will be used
pretty much for what it had been used for.”
Plans also call for the creation of two new buildings — a 3,000-square-foot
ballroom and conference center and 2,000- square-foot restaurant with a
“If someone used the ballroom for a wedding reception, for example, we envision
the wedding party using the Commandant’s House,” Huntress said.
All three existing buildings sit within sight of each other and were sturdily
built of smooth orange brick, with white wooden trim, by U. S. Army soldiers as
part of an unfortified post.
The Army decommissioned the site in 1963. Some of the windows were later
boarded, and barbed-wire fencing now stretches across the back of the Naval
Barracks, warding off trespassers.
The proposal is in the “planned development phase,” said Larrabee, who confirmed
that Acquest signed a 40-year lease for the property earlier this year.
Since the proposal is a private- public development of state property, the state
has final approval. The state is also lead agency in the State Environmental
Quality Review Act (SEQRA) process. Larrabee said that process is not complete,
as the state has not granted final approval of the plan’s “design and usage.”
Huntress’ partner in the proposed project, Paul Granville of Williamsville, said
he envisions help from Niagara University’s renowned theater program and College
of Hospitality and Tourism Management.
“This is a worthwhile project,” said Granville. “Do we want to preserve these
buildings or don’t we? We can’t just talk about it, we have to do it.”
Huntress said the developers will hire a hotel management company and have met
with several already.
He also envisions the addition of about 50 employees.
“That area — and all of Western New York, really — needs something like this,
something high-end. And, it’s got to be done right, or don’t do it.”
Local reaction to the news of the latest development plan has been positive.
Robert Emerson is executive director of Old Fort Niagara, built by the French in
the early 1700s. Old Fort Niagara is a not-for- profit organization with a
long-term lease to operate the historic fort just north of the proposed
development, in the same state park.
“They would be neighbors of ours, and it would be wonderful,” Emerson said. “I
see several advantages to this.
“One, those buildings have been deteriorating for years, and they are worthy of
preservation,” he said. “And I think it would be great to have people stay in
the park overnight. I see a whole new market for Old Fort Niagara with this
plan. I’m thinking of business retreats at the inn, people who could then visit
the Old Fort.
“This could only be good for Old Fort Niagara,” Emerson said.
Youngstown resident and historian Gretchen Duling frequently walks through Fort
Niagara and introduced Granville to the property in the hopes of finding someone
to preserve the buildings. Granville, in turn, brought in Huntress.
“My husband [Dennis] and I restored our own  house in the village, so our
slant is on not tearing down, but on taking care of and preserving old
buildings,” she said. “It’s history. It was breaking my heart to see these
buildings deteriorate. I was thrilled that these men were willing to take on
this challenge. I know they have to meet a lot of criteria [from the state], but
I’ve always wanted something positive to happen to those buildings. They are
stately, wonderful and well-built, and I am so excited about this.”
“I think this is nothing but good news for Youngstown,” said Cheryl Butera,
president of the Youngstown Business and Professional Association. “There are
not enough places for people to stay in Youngstown and this would give people a
reason to come and stay here. It will bring more business into Youngstown and I
think it will be good for everyone.”
A previous attempt to develop the property met headlong with opposition in the
form of the Friends of Fort Niagara, formed in 1996 and headed at the time by
Broderick said last week she is awaiting official word on the plans and doesn’t
want to comment on “rumors and hearsay” surrounding the project.
“My concern is the impact— on the fishermen and on the children playing soccer,”
she said. “That park is for everyone, not just for the people who could afford
to stay at an inn.
“But a positive thing would be restoration of the theater,” she added. “And if
they came up with a fairly decent plan for the site, I probably wouldn’t be
opposed to it. But I would push for a new SEQRA. Times have changed since the
last one was done [for a prior proposal by W. Kirk Hastings].”
Huntress promised his proposal “would have a minimal impact on anything up
“The focus of this project is to save these historic structures,” he said.
Larrabee said the state first sent out requests for proposals to develop the
site in 1996. The state had approved a proposed $4.8 million project to create a
hotel, bed-and-breakfast and conference center at the same site with Hastings, a
Youngstown developer who died in September 2001 before getting a good start on
“We sent out the requests for proposals again in November of 2004, and there
were no qualified applicants,” Larrabee said. “We issued them again in 2007, and
we received one proposal from a qualified applicant, Acquest.
“We consider this an asset to the state,” she said of such developments. “People
seem surprised to hear of public-private partnerships in state parks, but there
are inns at Letchworth State Park, Saratoga Spa State Park and Bear Mountain in
the Hudson Valley.
“They do add a lot, overall, to the park,” Larrabee added. “Visitors taking day
trips may like a nice meal, and at the Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Spa
State Park, for example, they have access to mineral baths, too. So there are a
lot of opportunities to share the park experience and they are looking for
unique ways to do this. And, because parks are a recreation destination,
overnight stays and vacations go hand-in-hand.
“These are public-private partnerships consistent with our mission and they
provide the best resources and experiences for state parks. And Fort Niagara is
an extremely special place with a remarkable history.”
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