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Historic Fort Shelby Hotel Reopens as the Newly Remade Doubletree Guest Suites Fort Shelby,
the Latest of Several New or Reborn Hotels Downtown Detroit

By John Gallagher, Detroit Free PressMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Dec. 14, 2008 - It wasn't so long ago that trees were growing out of the roof of the historic but derelict Fort Shelby Hotel in downtown Detroit.

Monday afternoon, the onetime eyesore reopens after three dark decades as the newly remade Doubletree Guest Suites Fort Shelby, the latest of several new or reborn hotels downtown.

The $90-million Doubletree joins the Westin Book Cadillac and hotels at the MGM Grand and MotorCity casinos that opened recently. The Greektown Casino Hotel is due to open in early 2009.

When the Doubletree throws open its doors at 4 p.m. Monday it will be with little or no fanfare. A grand opening charity event to benefit Ronald McDonald House is to be held in late February.

Five guests were booked to stay Monday night as of Friday, said Shannon Dunavent, the Doubletree's general manager. The hotel's new Bearclaw Coffee Co. shop will open Monday afternoon, while the upscale Finn & Porter restaurant will open later in the week.

Located on Lafayette between First and Second, the hotel will feature 203 suite-type guest rooms and 56 rental apartments on upper floors. When the housing market recovers, the apartments could be sold as condominiums, much as the upper floors of the Westin Book Cadillac were turned into condos.

The Fort Shelby dates to 1916, with a 22-story tower designed by architect Albert Kahn added in 1927. The hotel closed in the 1970s and was thought by many to be a candidate for demolition before Detroit-area real estate investors Emmett Moten, Leo Phillips and others teamed with Doubletree to bring the property back from the dead.

Dunavent said she is not deterred by opening the hotel during the worst economic climate in decades.

"This is my seventh hotel opening. I've been around 25 years in this industry. And of all my openings, this is one of my openings I feel the most confident about.

"I can tell you we really feel that we fill a niche that just has not been delivered here in Detroit, and we know we are going to appeal to people and to businesses because of that."

That niche blends the hotel's all-suites format with an upscale restaurant and conference facilities designed to meet the certification standards of the International Association of Conference Centers.

"We have a very boutique and a very homey feel, which is what Doubletree represents," Dunavent said. "It's definitely a different style hotel, and that's not something that's been in the city here, and I think that because of that we will stand alone. So I'm not concerned about the economy."

Even so, the economy presents a challenge. Chuck Skelton, an Ann Arbor-based hotel consultant with the firm Hospitality Advisors, said the weak economy has softened occupancy rates at downtown hotels this year from about 59%-60% in 2007 to 51%-52% for the first half of this year.

But if the economy is weak, the Doubletree, Westin and casino hotels may be able to attract travelers who previously had stayed elsewhere in metro Detroit.

"It's too early to tell, but my guess is that some of those new big full-service hotels are going to suck some demand in from the suburbs," Skelton said.

And, of course, the Doubletree opens just in time for the North American International Auto Show in January and the SAE World Congress and the NCAA Final Four in early April.

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER at 313-222-5173 or gallagher@freepress.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Detroit Free Press

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