Paul Wilson: Royal Connaught now knockin' on heaven's door

One year ago, mayor Bob Bratina declared the rebirth of the Royal Connaught was just around the corner. Walk past the old hotel today and you can smell the decay.
It's been eight years since the last guest checked out of the Royal Connaught. Will the developers ever check in? (Paul Wilson/CBC)

I believe it’s the smell of death. I was just walking past and it hit me – an unpleasant cocktail of mould and dirt and decay.

Outside, the Royal Connaught does not look so different these past eight years, ever since they sent the last guests home. But inside, the place that holds so much grand Hamilton history may be ready to die.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope somebody knows something I don’t. I hope salvation appears tomorrow.

To me, the Connaught has always been more important than the Lister. The Lister is a beauty. And if they can ever find some ground-floor tenants, we can call that expensive restoration a complete success.

But the Connaught looms larger on the downtown streetscape. And the Connaught means something to more people. It was the place of elegant balls, grad dances, political shindigs. Prime ministers walked through that imposing lobby.

Mayor had the scoop

A year ago this month, mayor Bob Bratina declared he had a scoop. The Royal Connaught was a go. He said the developers were "ready to go as soon as this fall."

He mentioned two principals in this project – Rudi Spallacci and Ted Valeri, who’ve owned the Connaught for seven years. Both have been very successful in the construction business in this city. And both chose not to step forward to elaborate on that teaser from the mayor.

I’ve never met Ted Valeri, though I do know he was suing the city for $9 million over a land deal that collapsed.

I have met Rudi Spallacci. I talked to him several times a few years ago, when he was building the Terraces on King, an 11-storey $16-million project that’s a wonderful addition to downtown.

At the rear of the Connaught, the weeds move in. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

So last week, after I picked up the scent of death in front of the Connaught, I drove to Spallacci’s office. It’s far from the core, up near Rymal and Nebo.

He was out, but his secretary said he’d surely be back later. I left my card.

I didn’t hear back that day, so followed up with a phone call. His secretary said he was tied up and asked if I’d like to leave a message on his voice mall. I did, but still didn’t hear back.

Sales trailer

From more than one person who should know, I heard early this summer that a sales trailer was about to be set up in front of the Connaught. The marketing of condos was to begin. No trailer appeared.

I also heard from one city hall veteran that those who wanted to develop the Connaught have been scared off by what Darko Vranich is now putting up with great speed in the core – two hotels and hundreds of condo units.

The theory is that the Connaught interests worry there would be too much coming on the market at one time. Another concern – maybe City Hall’s downtown-development incentives have already been tapped out by Vranich.

I don’t know if there’s anything to it. Those are the questions I wanted to ask.

The Royal Connaught opened in 1916 and wowed a city. Come its centennial, just a few years from now, will this storied hotel get a chance to impress us again? Or will we mark that day with a wake? |  @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson.