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Tuesday, January 31, 2023
A Q&A with Benny Marotta

Following our Randwood series, Niagara Now and The Lake Report recently sat down with Benny Marotta, developer and owner of Solmar Development Corporation for a Q&A. Here are some of the questions asked.

TLR: “Tell me what’s been up with you lately Benny — the good and the bad.”

MAROTTA: “On the positive side, I’m proud and excited that my daughters’ winery Two Sisters Vineyards was recently was awarded the title of Best Performing Small Winery in Canada for 2018 by Wine Align (a company that hosts a national wine competition). This is a great accomplishment for my family, and for Niagara-on-the-Lake. When my daughters and I started Two Sisters, this was the quality we strove for. It’s great to see it being recognized from international and national wine experts. On the negative side, I’m disappointed that the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is losing the charm it’s been known for. I’ve noticed that there’s a big change in the community, in that there’s an obvious split — and that should not have happened. The town should come together and try to — or make sure — that it doesn’t fall into the hands of people who are not considering what is best for the town now and for future generations.

TLR: What is your general opinion of Niagara-on-the-Lake? I know that’s vague, but I’m talking about development and the political landscape of the town.

M: “I think that probably 90 per cent of the people in NOTL are starting to understand what is happening (in politics). There’s a really small group of people who don’t want anyone else to come into this town. They don’t understand that progress is the future. I remember when I built the Cannery Park subdivision in St. Davids; the intent of that community was to give homes to the young generations in NOTL, and also to attract professionals and hard working people from other municipalities, and from the city. It is the future of the town — we have to understand that new generations are the future of society … Cannery Park has given an opportunity to first time buyers and second time buyers, who could not have otherwise afford high-priced houses, stopping their chance of owning a home, raising children and being a part of a beautiful and safe community such as NOTL.

TLR: To clarify, you’re saying young people can’t afford to come here and live here if we don’t have affordable housing?

M: “No, it is impossible, homes in NOTL are based on the current market value. Prices of homes are over $1 million, which makes home ownership unaffordable to many young families. So how do we find homes for young generations? if you don’t do that, then in 10, 20, 30 years, what happens?”

TLTLR: How much is the average house selling for at Cannery Park? 

M: “Cannery Park, when we built it, were priced from $300,000 to $450,000. Today these same homes are now selling between $500,000 and $800,000. So to me, I’m very proud that I did that. It is very difficult today for the young generation to make money on homes. So anytime I drive by and see young families with children playing in the park, I am happy they have made some money on their homes. Maybe in the future they can sell it to buy a bigger home for their families or invest in new businesses to help NOTL flourish. This would help create jobs and overall growth.”

TLR: What types of people are you seeing move into Cannery Park? Are they mainly young families?

M: “Yes. Mainly young families. There are some retirees that cannot afford to buy a home over $1 million — some buyers are from the city of Toronto, Oakville, Milton, Mississauga and Niagara Region. Not everyone can afford to buy a house for over $1 million — not only the younger generation but also the middle-aged buyer.”

TLR: Do you have an idea of what the average house is selling for in other municipalities like St. Catharines or Niagara Falls — new builds in subdivisions in those areas?

M: “They are less costly than NOTL. Niagara-on-the-Lake has a reputable name, created by the residents that have been here for generations. The community as a whole has succeeded in making NOTL a sought after tourism destination visited by millions of people a year, not only because of the vibrant wine and culinary attractions and its industry, but also because of its unique charm made possible by generations of local members of the community. If it was not for them, NOTL would not be NOTL.”

TLR: Moving on, what is your plan now with the Randwood Estate?

M: “Always as it has been, we are going to build a beautiful hotel that will be timeless and make this community proud. We are going to build something that will complement the surrounding natural (landscape), and add to the historical and sophisticated elegance of NOTL. There has been some resistance from a small group of people, where they’re claiming that they own the Rand Estate — called SORE (Save Our Rand Estate). I didn’t know I had partners, but I guess people can just come out and claim ownership. Why they have proclaimed ownership and control, I have no idea, although I can understand why a politician would use this opportunity for their own agenda and a way to manipulate peoples’ perception. One thing that I’m disappointed about, is that some people have managed to distort the truth. This is common with politicians that have an agenda. At times there are politicians who are moved by personal agendas instead of the best interest of the community in which they represent. As a result these politicians often need someone they can use to become popular within their community. I guess the Rand Estate project and the Marotta family has given a perfect opportunity for a politician who wanted to use these types of tactics to act on. 

TLR: In your opinion, how do you feel you’ve been painted to the public?

M: “As a family we are disappointed that the group SORE has personally attacked and bullied us on many levels, even after the efforts we have and continue to make to the greater Niagara region, in particularly NOTL. We have built an award winning winery, and also donated $1 million towards a new agri-food innovation centre at Niagara College. As a family we are proud members of the community, raising our children in this beautiful town. We are hopeful that they too can prosper with the next generation that is now proud to call NOTL home. I question what members of the SORE group have contributed to NOTL as of today.”

TLR: There have been other hotel developments approved since your application. What are your thoughts on hotels like Hawley hotel in the Village?

M: “Well I think that anybody should have the right to do business in this town … I have a high respect of the owner of the hotel, so I don’t have any problem with him getting the approval for that.”

TLR: Why do you think the Hawley hotel didn’t receive much fight back and was moved through fairly quickly?

M: “To fight a local at election time is very damaging to a campaign.”

TLR: What happens to the Randwood properties if they’re not developed?

M: “Well the question that I have for all those people that are opposing the development of the Rand Estate is: What’s their plan? (The properties were) on the market for three years. No one had made efforts to purchase it. Everyone who is claiming to be part of SORE … has ignored the opportunity to make efforts for rightful ownership. So what is their plan for the property — that in affect they have no interest or ownership of? I would have respected them if they had approached me in a civilized manner and worked together to discuss a common solution.”

TLR: So what happens to the Rand Estate if you don’t build on it?

M: “Well no one is going to do what I’m trying to do. No one is going to come into town on a business level and try to get involved with people of this nature. No one needs it and no one wants it. This is an embarrassment to the town.”

TLR: Do you have anyone interested in buying the property?

M: “I did have two groups interested in acquiring the whole property — encompassing the Rand Estate and also all the property behind, which I own — a total of 46 acres.”

TLR: “And who was this?”

M: “It’s to a religious group.”

TLR: “What religious group?”

M: “There’s two of them, and I put them on hold for now, depending on the election. If the town remains in the hands of reasonable, accountable and politicians who have the interest of the town at heart, I may not be interested in the option that is on the table. If politics change, I may consider it.”

TLR: “Hm. You don’t need to tell me the name of the group, but can you tell me the religion?”

M: “No.”

TLR: “That’s interesting. So both of them are religious groups?”

M: “Yes … For them it’s perfect, so they can build their place of worship and a community for their members behind it.”

TLR: “Is there any part of you that’s going to keep the property and just let it fall into the ground?”

M: “No. That would be a shame. I would never do that.”

TLR: “Tell me about your decision to appeal to project.”

M: “As far as the appeal, I never had the intention of appealing, I just wanted to sit, meet with staff and try to come up with a compromise. The problem I have is every project (I’ve) done in NOTL has always went through the proper process which involved heritage and the design committee, meaning our consultants met and worked with the design committee together in order to come up with a proper design — this was the same process used for Cannery Park and the homes down on the main street. The Rand Estate proposal has been sabotaged from the beginning. As of today, we’ve never had a meeting with the design committee. Unfortunately (local activists) managed to sabotage that, making it appear (Two Sisters) did not want to cooperate with the municipality. On the contrary, we have been following the process from day one with no success. When we had the first open meeting at the community centre, it was supposed to be the first meeting with the design committee, but instead that was sabotaged and we were thrown in front of 600 people even though the design wasn’t ready. During this particular open hearing, my wife, daughters and son-in-law attended. The direct insults, name calling and hurtful words directed at them from various members of the community was extremely disturbing and unforgettable. We are proud to call NOTL home and we have never experienced this behaviour from anyone before. The purpose of getting the people there was to say “look, look what is happening,” so what happened is they managed to push us in a situation where we have to appeal to the board. And then campaigning politicians can say “see, I told you, they don’t want to work with us and they went to the board.” I believe that was the time where the Rand Estate and my family became a trampoline for election campaigns.

TLR: “So, in a way having such strong resistance kind of did you a favour?”

M: “Well not really. It held (the development) up.”

TLR: “But through the appeal board, you still should get the hotel height you want?”

M: “Yes, of course. The hotel, we have all the studies done that when it’s built you won’t even see it. It’ll be behind a wall and trees that are 200-feet high, and it’s only 60 feet … the board is based on merits, and politics doesn’t work at the board … we did everything that the Town asked us to do, so when we’re at the board I think we’ll have no issues. The only thing I feel bad about, is it’s going to cost the town a minimum of $1 million in legal fees — to get exactly what we have. That’s what politics does.”

TLR: “So where are you in the appeal process?”

M: “Well we appealed it. One to argue that the homes that were designated are not heritage. We have the Town itself that said it’s not heritage, and a consultant that said it’s not heritage. We are going to win, because they’re not heritage at all. The Town has to hire a lawyer to represent them. I hope we can sit down still and come to a solution, in order to not have the Town pay all those expenses, which is not necessary.”

TLR: So what are your plans for the lands behind the Randwood Estate?”

M: “The lands behind are zoned for residential use. So we’re going to build a residential community. I know there have been talks amongst politicians (who) want to down-zone it back to agriculture. That’s going to be a huge mistake, because if (they) do that, they’re exposing the Town to a huge liability.”

TLR: “How?”

M: “Well the lands were bought based on the Town and Regional Official Plan. The town did it, the Town is responsible, and think about millions and millions (in lost value).

TLR: “What’s your opinion of current council?”

M: With the exception of (one councillor), they are very responsible and caring of the best interest of our wonderful community. I think council has been embarrassed by this whole (Randwood) situation.

TLR: “Why do you think SORE members don’t want the hotel?”

“I suspect many of the SORE members own bed and breakfasts and they don’t want any competition, which is very unfair … The Town is losing income on the commercial uses of these homes — the town should rezone the land to commercial use to instill the appropriate taxes … They should implement a hotel tax similar to what has been implemented in Niagara Falls. This would help support and sustain the economic viability of NOTL.

TLR: “So you’re pretty confident that you’ll be able to build the hotel you want?”

M: “Again, depending on the politics … we are not interested in putting the efforts of operating a business within an unstable political landscape. However we have trust in the community who will make the right decisions in electing responsible council members who are part of the NOTL culture and who understand the best interests of the community as a whole. This is especially important in a town that is one of the most charming and historical towns in Canada.

TLR: “So, to end off on a positive note, what are some of the things you’re proud of doing for the town?”

M: “The Innovation Complex at Niagara College is going to be named the Marotta Family Agri-Food Complex. We invested $1 million. As I said before, we believe in young innovation. Niagara College is a place where a lot of young talented students are graduating and entering into the workforce with various skills. We need to support the College so it can continue to provide students with the tools they need to succeed in their chosen fields and careers. As members of the community we should all contribute and support various endeavours that assist younger generations in following their dreams for a better and prosperous life, in the hopes that they will continue to contribute to this economy. The problem is, if things are going the way they’re going — what’s next? People are tired of the charades played in politics. You need people to come and invest money in every community.”

TLR: Final thoughts?

M: “I caution and remind new and future residents in town, that we are guests of NOTL and should respect and contribute to this culture that has been in place for centuries. As well, to SORE members and the community, make your own choices when you are at the voting booth — for the benefit of the Town.”

This interview has been edited for clarification due to a minor language barrier and to discard the names of any candidates running in the 2018 Municipal Election.

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