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The Regal Constellation Hotel on Dixon Rd., near Pearson International Airport was once the hippest hotel in Toronto and it's been empty since 2003.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The Regal Constellation was once the hippest hotel in town, with the city's coolest cats sipping martinis on giant red leather couches while conventioneers from across North America rubbed shoulders in its Arabian Nights-themed bar.

Those days are long gone. The hulking facility has been sitting empty since 2003, when the SARS crisis dealt the city's tourism sector a harsh blow. With 800 rooms and aging convention facilities, the Dixon Road complex simply couldn't compete for business against smaller chains with lower operating costs, and it closed owing its creditors $10-million more than it could pay.

Now the sprawling complex is for sale again, following the bankruptcy of its hedge fund owner Sagecrest Dixon. It's the third sale since it closed - according to RealNet Canada records, it sold for $24-million in 2003 and $41-million in 2006, both times to investment groups intent on restoring the site to its former glory.

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"You've seen a few well-intentioned groups step in and buy the buildings since it closed, only to realize they require a tremendous amount of money to move ahead," said Bill Stone, executive vice-president of CB Richard Ellis Hotels. "They have either run out of their own money, or their lenders have run into trouble."

After a decade of neglect, how much the site is worth now is anyone's guess.

"We're really just starting the sale process," said Steve Pandos, the managing director of ColumbusNova in North Carolina, a real-estate investment group which is expected to handle the sale. "It's too early to say too much."

It's been a long time since the hotel's heyday. It hosted everything from Star Trek conventions to prison fellowship groups, with its huge bank of rooms ensuring everyone was able to keep their party going without having to leave the 15-acre site.

Guests and visitors would go home with lots to talk about - there was the Constellation aircraft that was parked out front, a swimming pool featuring islands of live plants, and the leather-covered bar atop it all, offering them the chance to lounge on giant round sofas that wrapped around the room.

All of which makes it sound like the latest Queen West boutique accommodations, but the hotel in all its retro glory isn't likely to be resurrected. After almost a decade of neglect the buildings are almost certain to be razed by any new owner.

"It's a shame they were left like that, because there was some good there to be salvaged," said Alam Pirani, a hotel analyst and executive managing director with Colliers International Hotels.

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Private equity firm Merchant Equity Group was part of the last group that planned to develop the site in 2007, vowing to open a $300-million hotel complex that would be managed by Hyatt and called the Hyatt Regency Toronto Airport.

It was an ambitious plan that would have seen the Regal Constellation torn down to make way for offices, retail space and convention facilities in addition to the hotel. It was to open this year, and the developers hired Terrasan Ltd. to begin demolition.

The demolition company's banner is still plastered over the security fence that surrounds the property, and it tore out the back parking garages in the first stage of work. Terrasan is still owed $369,900, according to documents filed in U.S. bankruptcy court.

The sale comes at a fragile moment for Toronto's hotel industry. The airport corridor is well served for space, with almost a half-dozen new hotels opening in the last two years. The high cost of demolition could also keep bidders away. And if someone really did want to build another airport hotel, they could just move a few kilometres down the road to Mississauga, where taxes are about $2,600 a year less per room.

While the hotel last sold for $41-million, it's almost impossible to know what it's worth today because of its deteriorating condition and the amount of work needed to clean the site for something new. It cost almost half a million dollars to tear down the parking garage - taking down two buildings known to be stuffed full of asbestos is bound to cost much more.

"It's a teardown," said Mr. Pirami. "I don't know what it would cost."

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Whatever happens, the Regal Constellation's future is bound to be less swinging than its past - at least for the next several years.

"You never know which way it'll go, but what may happen is someone will buy the site and complete the demolition. Then they'll wait for the market to right itself over the next few years," said Mr. Stone. "There's no question of whether it's a fabulous site, because it is in a good spot. But I think you'll see a parking lot before you see anything else."

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