Archive for Wednesday, September 8, 1999

CHANGE IN WORKS FOR HOTEL

September 8, 1999

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The new owner of downtown's historic Eldridge Hotel could seek $6 million in public financing to help build a new 300-space parking garage behind the hotel, which would become the largest in town.

Plans are in the works downtown for a four-star hotel with at least 200 rooms, several conference areas, an expanded restaurant and an adjacent parking garage for up to 300 cars.

Its anchor: the historic, 48-suite Eldridge Hotel.

"As our community grows, the Eldridge Hotel has become more and more unable to meet the needs of the community because of its size," said Rob Phillips, the hotel's general manager. "If the Eldridge Hotel is going to remain the prominent hotel in the community, this is necessary."

Phillips said he signed a deal Tuesday morning to sell the hotel to an unidentified buyer, a local man who plans to seek public financing to build an adjacent parking garage at the southeast corner of Seventh and Vermont streets.

The deal is contingent on many variables, including the new owner's ability to add onto the hotel, negotiate historic preservation regulations and secure public financing for parking -- current cost estimate: $6 million -- during the coming year.

Phillips said the estimated $18 million expansion project would "enhance" the existing Eldridge, a landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At 200 rooms, it would become the largest hotel in town.

But the deal is far from done.

Phillips, who heads a team of two dozen investors who have owned the hotel since 1986, said the new owner agreed to pay more than the hotel's $2.4 million appraisal for property-tax purposes although no architects have been hired, no engineering plans have been drawn and no hotel management company has been hired.

New owner, management

Recent discussions have focused on signing the same management company that runs The Raphael Hotel near the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. Whoever ends up managing the hotel would be expected to own a minority interest in the new company, Eldridge Hotel L.L.C.

Phillips said he was helping the new owner assemble a team of investors. One is likely to be Jayhawk Equities L.L.C., a Lenexa group that has acquired several downtown properties in recent months and includes members of Jayhawk Properties L.L.C., a separate group that has agreed in principle to sell the new owner an office building at 714 Vt. to help the hotel expand and provide more parking.

Adding to a historic building means winning approval from the city's Historic Resources Commission, which in recent years has rejected plans for building a Borders bookstore at Seventh and New Hampshire streets and expanding the Lawrence Arts Center at Ninth and Vermont streets.

Borders eventually won a bitter battle, and the arts center agreed to move to New Hampshire Street rather than face a possible court challenge. How additions to the Eldridge would fare remain unclear.

"Respecting history does not mean you freeze or not allow growth to happen," said Dennis Enslinger, the city's historic resources administrator. "Downtown Lawrence has evolved since 1854. It's about doing it in a sensitive and thought-provoking manner."

Pat Talbott, manager for Jayhawk Equities and Jayhawk Properties, said he was confident the deal would go through. Lawrence needs a luxury hotel downtown, and the additional parking that would go with it, he said.

"Certainly there are roadblocks," said Talbott, whose fellow investors anticipate taking a "minority position" in the hotel's new ownership group. "I don't think there's anything out there that can't be overcome."

Tourist draw

The city already is immersed in another downtown redevelopment project that would include public financing: Downtown 2000, which aims to build new retail shops, professional offices, loft apartments, a relocated Lawrence Arts Center and a four-level parking garage in the 900 block of New Hampshire Street.

Phillips said the Eldridge project was following Downtown 2000's lead. The project would seek tax-increment financing, which would use the additional tax revenues generated by the expansion to pay off the costs of building the new parking garage, which likely would occupy at least part of an existing city lot at the corner of Seventh and Vermont.

Judy Billings, director of the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she was excited about the idea behind the proposed expansion project, something she's supported for more than a decade.

Overnight visitors spent $28.6 million last year in Lawrence for hotel stays, meals and other retail shopping, she said. By adding to the 1,000 hotel rooms already available -- along with an additional 150 rooms anticipated for a new resort at Clinton Lake -- Lawrence appears primed to boost its attractiveness for conventions and other "high-end" overnighters.

"I think it will be a real positive for the community," said Billings, who will become interim president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce later this month. "I know there are a lot of hoops to jump through, but I hope people will look at it in a positive light."

-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is mfagan@ljworld.com.

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