|By Kevin Collison, The Kansas City Star,
Mo., The Kansas City Star, Mo.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 30, 2005 - "We've restored a landmark that's one of the true treasures of the city."
Developer Ron Jury
The historic President Hotel is returning to downtown, capping a tenacious, four-year campaign beset by financing setbacks, critics who wanted it demolished and a broken water main. Developer Ron Jury, the force behind the project, plans to "inaugurate" the hotel Jan. 11.
His $45.4 million restoration has brought back its grand public areas, including the famed Drum Room restaurant and lounge, and replaced its cramped 453-room layout with a 213-room boutique hotel with all the luxury trimmings.
The 14-story hotel at 14th Street and Baltimore Avenue, which opened in January 1926, has been rechristened the Hilton President Kansas City.
"I can't be happier and more excited," Jury said during a tour of the project last week. "It's been a lot of hard work, but anything worth doing takes time and patience, and the reward will be here at the end."
The developer was relaxing -- sort of -- on a couch in the spacious hotel lobby, restored to its 1940 glory with gold-leafed columns and an imposing reception desk worthy of a classic Hollywood film.
His cell phone sounded regularly with queries from suppliers rushing to wrap up details.
The President's return after a 25-year hiatus, during which the empty building endured uncaring owners, pigeon droppings and decay, is being welcomed particularly by longtime residents. They fondly remember the Drum Room and other spaces -- the Aztec Room, Walnut Room and Congress Ballroom -- as hot spots during downtown's heyday.
Mayor Kay Barnes, who toured the building recently, gave it a rave review.
"People are going to be thrilled when they see the renovation," Barnes said. "I think they've done a beautiful job."
Jury also was honored with a Historic Preservation Award from the Kansas City chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
"You're holding on to a little bit of history and the city's architectural heritage," said Reeves Wiedeman, president of the local AIA chapter. "The notion of authenticity is going to be what a lot of people are going to be looking for downtown."
Over the years the President has accommodated notables ranging from Charles Lindbergh to Bob Dylan, and served as headquarters for the 1928 Republican National Convention which nominated Herbert Hoover.
"I'm just so surprised by the history and nostalgia the old hotel has and so many people remember it," Jury said. "One man who's in his 80s told me he was driving downtown and saw the President sign lit up and he felt like he was 30 again."
Just east of the hotel, across Main Street, the new H&R Block headquarters has topped off at 17 stories and the foundation has been laid for the entertainment district being developed by the Cordish Co. of Baltimore. The Sprint Center arena is under construction a few blocks to the east, and the old Empire Theater, which is expected to reopen as a modern multiplex, also is close by.
It's an appropriate formula for reviving downtown, Jury noted, something old and something new.
"It speaks to what Kansas City is all about," the 49-year-old developer said. "It's a historic town and yet its progress and future is bright."
The President is the first project to be completed in the ambitious South Loop redevelopment plan that is transforming a dozen-block section of downtown south of 12th Street.
In fact, its operation may be hampered for a while by its first-place finish.
The city has guaranteed street access and built a temporary 100-space parking lot next door, but for much of 2006, the President will stand alone, adjacent to a sprawling construction zone.
H&R Block employees aren't scheduled to take occupancy until July and the first businesses in the entertainment district won't open until fall at least.
Jury said backers of the President have deep enough financial pockets to weather the commotion. His partners are Drake Leddy, a Texas hotel developer, and a partnership that includes himself, Dennis Pruessner of Kansas City and Mark Schupp of St. Louis. Jury also noted that the Hilton franchise links the hotel to the company's reservation and marketing network.
Tom Holden, executive director of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City, said the Hilton association should be helpful.
"I think the President Hotel is going to be a marvelous asset to the city and a great addition to downtown," Holden said. "A lot of its success depends on our ability to fill the convention center and bring meetings here."
Hotel occupancy rates downtown have been soft, running just under 60 percent this year, said Bill Bohde, vice president of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Activity is expected to increase significantly in 2007 when most of the new downtown projects are scheduled to be open, he said.
For Jury, the President's reopening is the realization of an ambitious vision he announced Sept. 20, 2001.
Until then, the Overland Park developer had built a comparatively low-profile portfolio of properties that were mostly older apartment and office buildings in suburban locations.
He got into the real estate business on his own in 1987 after working several years for Hugh Zimmer, a pillar of the local commercial real estate community. Jury said he received a figurative "Ph.D." in development during his time at Zimmer. But it may have been the grit and determination he learned as a regional wrestling champion at Oak Park High School in 1974 that prepared him best for renovating the President.
The timing of his decision to proceed with the project was terrible.
Just nine days before, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon set in motion what was to be a huge downturn in the travel and hospitality industry.
Jury had wanted to redevelop the empty building for some time, but its destiny was tied up in the original Power & Light District redevelopment plan pursued for more than 20 years by the late movie theater magnate Stan Durwood. That plan called for the building to be demolished.
A few months after the Kansas City Council terminated Durwood's plan in October 2000, Jury approached the mayor about reusing the hotel.
"She thought it was worthwhile and supported me," Jury said.
Her assistance was going to be needed.
Although the old Power & Light plan was over, a new master plan for redeveloping downtown prepared by Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass., was about to be released.
The new plan called for razing the vacant hotel to make way for a linear park between an arena contemplated at 13th and Grand Boulevard and the landmark Power & Light Building.
The Sasaki report was funded and supported by the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, an organization of business and civic leaders.
That vision of a grand promenade, coupled with continuing concerns about adding hotel rooms in an already depressed market, provided fuel for critics throughout much of Jury's effort.
One of the more vocal opponents was Andi Udris, who was then president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. Udris called for the building to be demolished as recommended by Sasaki, and also questioned its financial viability and whether the depressed downtown hotel market needed more rooms.
"There's no question I'm happy to see the hotel completed now," said Udris, who is now in charge of Union Station. "At the time, I didn't feel it should open until well after the entertainment district and I also didn't feel we needed hotel rooms of that type."
Despite such concerns, Jury's redevelopment plan began fairly smoothly, winning a quick endorsement from the Tax Increment Financing Commission in fall 2001. The following summer, the Kansas City Council approved authorizing a $14.5 million bond.
By June 2002, Jury believed he'd obtained a commitment for $14 million in private financing from a suburban Cleveland lender. Work began on the interior demolition and removal of asbestos.
Then the financing deal collapsed. That August, Jury filed a still-pending lawsuit that accused the Ohio firm, H&A Capital, of failing to fulfill terms of the agreement.
The developer began what became a lengthy search for another source of private financing.
By summer 2003, the project was in jeopardy. Contractors had filed a $3.9 million lien for unpaid work they'd done, and the city was beginning the process of ending his development rights.
"The greatest surprise and shock was in August 2002," Jury recalled. "Ten days before closing I found out my lender was strictly a loan broker and no money was available.
"The next shock came when the TIF Commission removed me as developer in August 2003, when my financing was 70 percent complete."
Jury ultimately found a replacement lender, Marshall Investments Corp. of Minnesota, and persuaded Leddy to become his partner. He lobbied City Council members to allow him to continue and in January 2004, they agreed.
The developer singled out the mayor and council members Troy Nash and Chuck Eddy in particular for their support.
He also said the patience of his contractors, including J.E. Dunn Construction Co., Gastinger Walker Harden Architects and B&R Insulation, helped him complete the project along with the Blackwell Sanders law firm.
He had one last challenge, though.
On Aug. 16, when work was nearly finished, a water main broke at 14th and Baltimore. For more than two hours, a geyser doused the hotel, destroying the unique snare-drum sign for the Drum Room and flooding the hotel basement and dining room. Jury said the accident caused $1 million in damage. On a recent tour of the building, Jury was proud to point out the gleaming terrazzo floors of the Congress Ballroom, which occupies much of the 12th floor, liberated from 20 years of gunk and pigeon dung.
The glass chandeliers sparkled when he threw open the outer doors to allow in the morning sun and the butterscotch yellow room glowed.
The first floor lobby off Baltimore was restored to how it appeared in 1940, when an extensive remodeling project opened the Drum Room.
While the huge kettle drum that once served as its bar is gone--it took up too much space--the rest of the room has been restored. An old painting of South Pacific islanders that was in the original space has been returned.
The biggest change to the building, besides the larger guest rooms, will be a new entrance on the east side facing the entertainment district. It will offer a motor court where guests can be dropped off.
A permanent garage with 130 spaces reserved for the hotel is being built just to the north as part of the entertainment district and is expected to open in late summer.
"I think it's going to be the finest hotel in the entire Midwest region," Jury said.
"We've restored a landmark that's one of the true treasures of the city, equally as much as Union Station and Liberty Memorial."
Downtown revival The historic President Hotel, rechristened the Hilton President Kansas City, is scheduled to reopen Jan. 11. The hotel counts Charles Lindbergh, Bob Dylan and Harry S. Truman among its guests. After being closed and falling into disrepair over the past 25 years, the 213-room boutique hotel is the first project to be completed in the massive South Loop redevelopment.
To reach Kevin Collison, call (816) 234-4289 or send e-mail to email@example.com.
Copyright (c) 2005, The Kansas City Star, Mo.
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