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Developer Ralph Burnet Investing up to $50 million to Convert
 Minneapolis's Foshay Tower in to a 229 room W Hotel

By Aron Kahn, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Nov. 6, 2006 - Like a faded movie star rediscovered, the Foshay Tower is making a comeback.

The distinctive Minneapolis skyscraper once was the tallest structure between Chicago and the West Coast, edging out St. Paul's First National Bank building. You landed at the airport and the cabbie asked, "You going to see the Foshay?"

But in the 1970s, soaring skyscrapers began sprouting around the Foshay, and it wasn't long before the Washington Monument lookalike all but disappeared into a canyon.

Now, the Art Deco masterpiece is scheduled for a high-priced makeover. The Foshay won't get any taller, but it will get a lot fancier. Ralph Burnet, chairman of the Coldwell Banker Burnet realty company, plans to turn it into an upscale hotel, with room rates sprawling from about $200 to $1,000.

Can hotel-crazy Minneapolis really handle another 229 rooms?

"Try getting a room here in June, July and August," said the natty, 60-year-old real estate entrepreneur.

Burnet and six partners bought the Foshay in September for $16 million and will pump "north of $50 million" into the building in the next three years, he said. The tenants are relocating, and the interior will be gutted to prepare for a massive renovation of the 32-story structure at Ninth Street and Marquette Avenue.

If you love the Foshay's marble, terrazzo and etched glass, don't reach for the Tums. Those features will remain, in keeping with the building's status on the National Register of Historic Places, and because Burnet and his designers and architects know what sells.

The "W Foshay," one of Starwood Hotels and Resorts' high-end properties, also will preserve the rooftop deck, one of the few remaining open-air observation decks in the nation.

But the question remains, will the addition of 229 upscale rooms be too much for the hotel market, given all the new high-end accommodations lately?

"I think it's going to be tough," said Kirby Payne, president of HVS/American Hospitality Management Co., a Newport, R.I., firm with a strong Twin Cities connection. "Just because you create them doesn't mean people will come. It's not Las Vegas."

The centers of swank keep coming. The Chambers, Burnet's first hotel, opened in downtown Minneapolis last month, following Graves 601, formerly La Meridian, three years before.

Opening next year will be a Westin in the former F&M Bank building, and a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel in the historic Ivy Tower office building. The W Foshay is slated for 2008, along with the Graves Uptown, five minutes from downtown.

But Payne said the Foshay's chances of success might be better than most because of its historical significance, its location next to busy Nicollet Mall and the cachet of W hotels.

"Everybody there wears black with a gold W on their uniform," he said. "It's designed to be sexy and nouveau."

The idea of bedding down in the Foshay isn't entirely new; Wilbur Foshay used the top floors as his residence after the 1929 opening, which was all the rage. America's march king, John Philip Sousa, wrote and conducted "The Foshay Tower-Washington Memorial March" for the ceremonies, attended by many notables of the time.

But six weeks after the opening, the Great Depression hit and Foshay's $20,000 check to Sousa bounced. It wasn't the last of Foshay's troubles. An entrepreneur who bought and sold utility companies, Foshay eventually was convicted of a pyramid scheme in which he used revenues from new stock sales to pay dividends to holders of old stock.

President Franklin Roosevelt commuted Foshay's sentence after he spent three years in the Leavenworth prison, following letters of support from friends. President Harry Truman fully pardoned him in 1947, after which he slid into relative anonymity, dying 10 years later in a Minneapolis nursing home.

Travel numbers might indicate Burnet and other local hotel developers are on a roll. According to Hendersonville, Tenn.-based Smith Travel Research, the Twin Cities' 67.4 percent hotel occupancy rate beats the 65.2 percent national average so far this year, and the average room rate has risen 7.7 percent to $94, a bit faster than the nation's average increase.

The latter might suggest a demand for rooms with dark chocolates, fluffy bathrobes, 42-inch plasma TVs and soap from the south of France.

A personal sushi chef would be extra.

Aron Kahn can be reached at akahn@pioneerpress.com or 612-338-6516.

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Copyright (c) 2006, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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