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Close to 400 hundred Hotel Rooms Set to be Added to Downtown Fresno
 If Efforts to Renovate Two Shuttered Former Hotels Are Successful
By Sanford Nax, The Fresno Bee, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 19, 2007 - Hundreds of hotel rooms could be added to downtown Fresno if efforts to renovate two shuttered former inns are successful.

The 197-room Fresno Hilton, closed for four years, is being renovated by a new owner who plans to reopen it later this year as a Holiday Inn.

"It is completely stripped," said Steve Carr, chief financial officer of Packard Realty, which is doing the remodeling. "We have ordered the furniture and fixtures, have a design for the public areas and have contractors to renovate all the rooms."

The goal is to open the hotel on Van Ness Avenue across from the Fresno County Courthouse by year's end.

Meanwhile, a potential buyer for the beleaguered Hotel Fresno has stepped forward with plans to renovate the long-closed inn. The potential buyer, whose name was not released, is an experienced hotelier who would buy the 95-year-old structure for an undisclosed cash price, said Roger Story, a hotel broker involved in the discussions.

The potential buyer plans to meet with city officials on May 29. "Depending upon what happens there, he could go forward," Story said.

The suitor steps forward at a critical time for the 205-room hotel, which has been vacant since 1983. The building has deteriorated to the point where the city considers it a health and safety issue and sued the owners for not making timely repairs.

A judge recently refused to hold the owners in contempt, and a trial to determine whether the former hotel is safe was postponed this week while the parties tried to hammer out a settlement.

A tentative settlement giving the current owners certain extended timelines has been reached, said Lance Armo, an attorney representing the current hotel owners. The settlement is not final until all parties have signed and the agreement is filed with the court.

If the hotel is sold, "the new owner will step into the present owner's shoes and comply with what the city wants," Story said.

The prospective buyer recently sold another property and wanted to invest the proceeds in other real estate through a tax-deferred 1031 exchange. Story said he was attracted to the historic Hotel Fresno because of its downtown location and its solid exterior construction.

Parts of the building are deteriorating, but Story said the exterior is strong. "The concrete shell is in good shape," he said. "The structure itself is the Rock of Gibraltar."

Armo said other potential buyers are waiting in the wings if the current deal falls through.

Hotel Fresno is only a few blocks from the Hilton, which will have a $12 million investment, including purchase price, before it reopens as a Holiday Inn. The heating, air conditioning and fire sprinkler systems have been repaired or replaced, including all 800 sprinkler heads, Carr said.

The new owner is McSam Hotel Group of New York.

"It was a wonderful business opportunity that appeared to be overlooked by other people. Everyone we've brought there has been amazed. It is well built, in a good location and was reasonably priced," Carr said.

The new owner plans to reopen the glass-enclosed Skyroom on the ninth floor, which offers a rare view of downtown and beyond. The ground-floor restaurant also will reopen, as will the meeting rooms.

Convention officials are thrilled with the prospect of additional hotel rooms downtown. They have lost more than 50 conventions and meetings since the hotel closed because the city does not have enough hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center, said Wayne Bennett, executive director of the Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Bennett said the Hotel Fresno could lose some rooms in a remodel, but if successful it will add 150 more rooms downtown.

"I'm hoping the Hotel Fresno will be an upscale, almost boutique, hotel because we don't have that next step up," added Billie Kerstetter, director of sales for the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The reporter can be reached at snax@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6495.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

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