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IMIC Hotels Opens  the $13 million, 117 room Inn at USC; Students in Univerisity
 of South Carolina's School of Hospitality, Retail and Sport
 Management Will Work in the Hotel
By James T. Hammond, The State, Columbia, S.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 18, 2005 - When the University of South Carolina began pushing across Pickens Street into the University Hill community in the 1960s, taking and demolishing homes that owners did not want to give up, many residents began to view the university as an enemy bent upon finishing what Union Gen. William T. Sherman had begun.

The climax of the generation long feud came in 1974, when Mary Black, a longtime resident of Pendleton Street, challenged the taking of her landmark home in court. She lost her home anyway, but she raised the ante for the university, which was forced to pay $163,000 for the Black home, more than the $35,000 they had offered.

The lawsuit slowed the advance of the university into the historic neighborhood. Two decades later, USC changed direction, literally, recognizing in a 1994 master plan that future expansion would be to the west, toward the Congaree River.

USC on Wednesday will officially open the Inn at USC, a 117-room hotel on its campus that in many ways represents the healing of a fight over the expansion of the campus into one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

Black's former home is now the lobby of the Inn at USC, salvaged in 2003 from the wrecking ball at the insistence of the city and preservationists, and turned into a showplace for its eclectic 1913 architecture.

The melding of the Black House with the new Inn at USC is symbolic of the healing of this long fight between institution and community.

When Andrew Sorensen became president of the university in 2002, he lived in the neighborhood for two years while the president's on-campus residence was renovated. Today, he says settling the fight over the hotel has been one of his most important accomplishments.

The university and hotel builder and operator Bert Pooser settled for a compromise with the city and local hotel owners that limit their ability to market the Inn. But they are counting on its unique qualities, location and connection with the university -- and the federal Advocacy Center across the street -- to ensure its economic success.

University officials clearly want to put the long-running fight behind them.

"We've rehashed 40,000 times what was said in the past," said Susie VanHuss, executive director of the USC Development Foundation, which owns the hotel land. "It really doesn't matter now; what matters is what we do in the future."

Robin Waites, director of Historic Columbia, said the hotel is "proof you can take existing buildings and find new uses." She said the long-running dispute had ended "very positively."

Pooser, whose IMIC Hotels company is building and managing the $13 million facility, said the renovation of the house, with its mahogany-paneled entrance and three special suites upstairs, has made the hotel special in ways unparalleled by most.

Pooser's company has a contract with the USC Development Foundation to manage the hotel for 20 years and receive 20 percent of the profits.

"What people talk about is the Black House," Pooser said. "It is what is unique. People talk about those three beautiful suites. I've built 42 hotels and I tend to think about the debt service."

The entire hotel project was finished just 2 percent over budget, but twice as much as expected was spent on the Black House renovation, Pooser said.

"I could not be more pleased with how it turned out," he said.

John Stucker, president of the neighborhood association, said the experience of saving the Black House and participating in the hotel development is the "first step among many" toward settling a variety of community issues with the university.

To cement the relationship, the neighborhood association will hold its next meeting in the hotel on Oct. 11, Stucker said.

Numerous changes to plans for the hotel emerged from discussions with residents of the neighborhood, including moving the entrance of the parking deck behind the hotel from Henderson Street to Pickens Street. Issues remain, such as the amount of traffic in the neighborhood, but Stucker is optimistic the university today is interested in resolving them.

The new portion of the hotel has been designed and furnished to create a variety of unique experiences for guests. There are 15 different room types. Rooms are decorated with original color photographs of the historic USC campus made by Art Department Dean Phil Dunn. And the Art Department faculty and students will display drawings, paintings and sculpture in and around the Inn.

Students in USC's School of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management will work in the hotel to gain experience in their chosen field. The hotel has been taking in guests for several weeks to give new staff experience.

VanHuss said the Development Foundation is no longer interested in buying or in holding on to houses in the neighborhood.

"Sometimes people will give us property. In this neighborhood, we would try to return them to residential ownership," VanHuss said.

Despite restrictions on the Inn's ability to advertise, Pooser said USC fans, alumni and others already are discovering the hotel and booking visits, particularly for football weekends.

The Inn offers a full range of hotel services, including high-speed wireless Internet access, cable TV, free local phone calls, voice mail, in-room service and either a king bed or two queen beds.

A hot, cooked-to-order breakfast is served daily. The Inn features a fitness center, library, 3,100 square feet of meeting and banquet space and a conference room that seats 10. The entire Inn is a nonsmoking environment.

Stucker said he is pleased with the compromises.

"Because of this experience, we have a lot to build upon," he said.

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To see more of The State, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.thestate.com.

Copyright (c) 2005, The State, Columbia, S.C.

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