|By Keith Lawrence, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 3, 2005 - It didn't take long for Robert S. "Tripp" Snyder to make an impression on the record crowd of 541 people who turned out for the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce's Rooster Booster Breakfast on Thursday.
The managing member of the Minnesota-based group -- Minnesota/Owensboro Executive Inn LLC -- that bought the Executive Inn Rivermont last week for $10.75 million said he wants to build an indoor water park at the hotel.
"We want to take what John Bays has done and expand on it," the Minneapolis resident told the gathering at his new hotel. "We want to build an indoor water park that could make Owensboro a destination."
The idea, which Bays had earlier talked about as part of a casino-anchored entertainment center, received a favorable response.
"Tourist attractions are a necessary part of doing business these days," said Tony Clark, chairman of the Owensboro-Daviess County Tourist Commission. "We need it."
Snyder didn't specify how the water park would be paid for. But he said he planned to meet with city and county officials about it.
"I think it's a great idea," Mayor Tom Watson said. "They haven't given us a proposal yet. But it's worth looking at. People have a hard time finding activities for their children in the winter."
Both the city and county have talked about building water parks in recent years.
"It sounds promising," County Commissioner Mike Riney said. "We've talked about building one. I'd like to hear what they have to say."
"We'll have to see what they propose," County Commissioner Bruce Kunze said.
Snyder said he owns two other hotels -- Jekyll Oceanfront Resort, a 263-room property on Jekyll Island, Ga. (www.jekyllinn.com), and the Clarion Airport Hotel, (www.jaxclarion.com), a 200-room property in Jacksonville, Fla.
"I've owned hotels since 1981," he said. "John (Bays) buys distressed hotels and makes them great. I buy great hotels and make them better."
Snyder said he plans to keep the Executive Inn name and not seek a franchise -- even though his other hotels are Clarions.
"I want to capitalize on the 'Big E' more," he said. "There are several hotels with the Executive Inn name that aren't in good condition. We want this hotel to be distinct."
It can, he said, be one of the top hotels in the Midwest.
The 28-year-old hotel has 544 rooms, making it the largest in western Kentucky.
Snyder said he plans to expand the number of shows in the Showroom Lounge. "Except for those weekends when the hotel is already filled," he said, "we plan to have a show every other week."
And Snyder said he wants to work with Team IP Events, which recruits sports tourism for Daviess County, to bring in even more events.
Bays, who bought the hotel for $5.5 million at a bankruptcy sale in 1999 and spent, by his estimation, $14 million to renovate it, will continue to be involved for at least the next year.
He will serve as president of the company and be one of the eight partners.
But Bays said he will have no involvement in the daily operations of the property.
"I really love this community," Bays told the crowd. "I've had this deal to sell the hotel for about a year, but I never thought it would happen."
He said he will continue to work to get casino gaming legislation through the Kentucky General Assembly.
Bays told the crowd that Gov. Ernie Fletcher "is a good guy, but he's not a leader. He's not a dealmaker or a negotiator."
He drew applause when he added: "We're not moving forward in this state. We've got to stop the infighting."
Bays added, "If you believe in me, help me move this state forward."
The crowd applauded again.
"You can't let only the racetracks have slots," Bays said. "If gaming is going to happen, Owensboro and Daviess County have to be part of it."
He said if he gets a casino license, "We will put all the money back into this community. I want to be a legend down here."
As he left the podium, the entire room rose in a standing ovation.
In an e-mail after the meeting, Jody Wassmer, executive vice president of the chamber, attempted to distance the chamber from Bays' comments about the governor.
"We understood Mr. Bays' comments were going to be about the hotel's future which is why we allowed him to speak. But he was not speaking for the Chamber of Commerce when he commented about the governor or his administration," Wassmer said. "The chamber is an advocate for its business members and we work with the governor and the legislature on many issues affecting our community and our members."
The hotel will be managed by Forbes Hamilton Management Co. of Kissimmee, Fla., which manages eight hotels in Florida and Georgia, including both of Snyder's other hotels.
Tom Johnsen, president of the 19-year-old company, said Forbes Hamilton is already marketing the Executive Inn at trade shows around the country.
The company actually took over management of the hotel in January.
Ron Petroski, Forbes Hamilton's director of operations, came to Owensboro that month as general manager of the Executive Inn. He will continue in that capacity, Johnsen said.
Bays has said the hotel is losing $200,000 a month.
"We're not sure it's quite that bad," Johnsen said.
"They'll find out," Bays said.
Petroski said a new sales director has been hired and more sales people added.
Snyder said he plans to be in Owensboro at least twice a month to help with the transition.
"I've been coming to Owensboro incognito for a year now," he said. "I am so impressed with this community. I've never seen a chamber of commerce meeting with this many people."
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Copyright (c) 2005, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.
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