By Joshua Maloni
The Frontier House doors opened Thursday to a pair of assessors from GAR Associates Inc. The two men spent about 30 minutes inside the building. They went floor by floor, touring each room, taking pictures and asking several questions.
The Lewiston Town Board tasked the Amherst real estate appraising and consulting firm with placing a monetary value on Center Street's historic landmark. Supervisor Dennis Brochey recently announced Frontier House owner Richard Hastings is considering selling the building and grounds to the town.
GAR Associates Vice President Ronald J. Rubino said the building will be evaluated on its history, age, size and condition.
"In this case, we'd be focusing more in the Village of Lewiston, since it's a very definable neighborhood," he said. "We try to find what real estate values are for similar properties.
"Obviously, a unique property like this, it's unusual to find ones that maybe have sold that are similar to it. So, it makes it a little more challenging. Coupled with ... the condition that it's in - it's also larger with regard to land area and it has significant parking that's superior to a lot of properties in the village. That makes it unique. And the building, square-footage-wise, the sheer size of the building is larger than most buildings in the village. And that makes it unique, as well."
The Frontier House has been vacant since late 2004, when tenant McDonald's opted out of its lease. The surrounding lot is currently used for municipal parking.
Both Town Board members and Village of Lewiston trustees have said the building is in desperate need of renovation. Two years ago, Hastings' son, Alan, proposed converting the Frontier House into a microbrewery, but was unable to find funding to fix the 191-year-old structure.
Rubino said it's tricky contrasting the building's potential with its current state.
"You have look at the neighborhood and the demand," he said. "You have a lot of visitors that come here. The potential here is - and the challenge would be - is there a year-round market or more of a seasonal market? Are you getting the Canadian influence; people coming up from Buffalo? If it's going to be an operator, can he have enough sales volume for some kind of restaurant or bar or club or brewery, or rooms upstairs? So, it's a challenge to find the right combination of the real estate and the renovations to match what the market's going to bear.
"That would be the challenge of who would be the end user or users for it. It's one thing to renovate it; you know, bring it back up to its original character, which would be a tremendous challenge. But then to find a user that can take the layout - it's a unique layout - it's a challenge to find. There used to be a McDonald's here; they had fine dining restaurant and rooms upstairs. What will the market bear today? That's going to be a challenge and may take a marketing effort to find the right match for a building like this.
"At this point, I don't think there's an answer, because it could go many different directions as we stand here."
GAR is expected to produce an assessment in the next few weeks. Rubino said, "With any report, there's always a highest and best use, and our opinions as to what it could be used for - as if it were vacant and as if it were improved - in the condition that it's in today, and what it could be if it were renovated and restored."
If the Town Board receives a valuation it considers fair, and Hastings is satisfied with the price, Brochey said the next step would be to apply for Greenway money to purchase the Frontier House. Greenway Commission Vice Chairman and former Village of Lewiston Mayor Richard Soluri recently announced his support of a town acquisition.
Brochey said his board would bond the fee and allocate up to $200,000 of the town's annual $510,000 Greenway allotment toward paying it off. He said no taxpayer money would be required.
Since announcing his plan March 23, Brochey said the public response has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I'm going to say, maybe two negatives - three negatives at the most, I've heard. Everybody else has just been positive that something's got to be done. It's on the National Register. There's a lot of history," he said. "I talked to one guy the other day that they had his wedding reception there over 50 years ago. There's sentimental value to local people, too. It's not just the historical significance."
Brochey recognized the time and effort it would take to fix and reopen the Frontier House. He said the end result would justify the means.
"I love the building," Brochey said. "I ate there back in the late '60s when it was a beautiful restaurant. My daughter worked there when it was McDonald's. I guess I've got sentimental value to it myself - much like the people of Lewiston do.
"Being one of the oldest buildings probably in Western New York, outside of Fort Niagara, there's so much history there. I don't want to be like Niagara Falls that tore down everything and they can't bring it back to life again. This can only improve the Center Street ambiance. It just fits right in with everything else."
Brochey also had an opportunity to tour the Frontier House.
"It was different from what I remember it," he said. "I ate there in the late '60s and I can see the beauty coming back. I can see where this could be something everybody will be proud of once it's completed. But I can also see this is going to take several years before it's completed.
"I'd love to see it done by the year 2024 - at the 200th anniversary - completely done."
That said, "I think you're going to see a big difference - if everything falls in place with the Greenway money; with an agreement with the Hastings - I think people are going to see a big difference just in a year from now. That's what I'm looking for," Brochey added.
He said the Town of Lewiston is in better position than Hastings to find grants to fix the Frontier House.
If the building is purchased, the supervisor intends to form a committee to establish its use and/or find occupants.