Paul Wilson: Hotel man has the drill and the will in downtown Hamilton

It's been seven years since Hamilton Motor Products departed downtown for the Mountain. They left a lonely used-car lot behind, just steps from City Hall. But finally there's a man with a plan.
Signs of life at last on the old Hamilton Motor Products used-car lot on Main West... first come the soil samples, then plans, then bricks and mortar. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

One day last month I walked past the old Hamilton Motor Products used-car lot on Main near Bay. It’s seven years since HMP left the core and that lot had become a desolate place.

In the middle of the cracked tarmac that day sat one blue, broken-down easy chair. What a sight, just a few doors from City Hall. I took a picture, didn’t do anything with it.

Now I’ve just walked past there again. The chair is gone. In its place, a truck. And a couple of guys are drilling through the asphalt. They’re getting soil samples, the kind you do before you build something.

Several years ago, this land was supposed to become a hotel. It was going to be erected by an outfit connected to the Wilshire Group, which had built the Staybridge Suites on Market Street with Darko Vranich.

But as you may know, Vranich has been busy building hotels nearby. And it turns out the HMP used-car lands changed hands this summer. The new owner is Azim Kassam and he bought it from Vranich’s estranged wife Erika for nearly $2 million.

This was the view at the site last month. Since then, someone's reclaimed their La-Z-Boy. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Kassam is the man who, without fanfare, came to town four years ago and turned an old Ford dealership on Main near Wellington into a 60-room Days Inn. He and his family have been in the hotel business for years, first in Niagara Falls, then around the GTA.

The inn was an investment of $5.5 million and Kassam found the first year or two hard. Many weekends were sold out, but occupancy on weeknights was only 40 to 50 per cent.

And now? "It’s better," he says. "I really can’t complain. . . . Things are changing in Hamilton, slowly but surely."

So in July he bought that HMP lot. This week, he did the soil testing. And now he must decide.

"It could be a hotel, an apartment, a student residence, a seniors’ building," he says. "I’m not sure yet."

But he does say that sometime next year downtown Hamilton will have one less empty lot. Praise be. 

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson.