|By Carly Harrington, The Knoxville News
Sentinel, Tenn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 12, 2008 - JACKSON, Wyo. -- With the Grand Teton mountains as their backdrop, brothers John and Jess Wort set forth six decades ago to build this town's first luxury hotel.
When it was completed in 1941, The Wort Hotel embodied Western hospitality, opening its doors to skiers, ranchers and hunters.
Three months later, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States was at war.
Jess Wort, as the story goes, turned to his brother and declared, "We should have built a church."
But the Wort survived and thrived, becoming the central gathering place for locals in town.
Communities across the country have their own version of the Wort -- a decades-old hotel, usually located downtown, that, at one time, was considered the center of the social scene.
For whatever reason, through a succession of ownership, it falls on hard times. It falls into disrepair. Somebody doesn't invest the money.
Then a new owner comes along.
The first time Knoxville businessman Bill Baxter stepped foot in this small, Western town 14 years ago, he fell head over heels.
"Everybody's on their own terms. Most are out here for the same reason. They just love the country, the landscape. It's a little bit different lifestyle out here. I like it," Baxter, 55, said.
Avid travelers with an appreciation for historic hotels, Baxter and his wife, Ginger, became regular visitors to Jackson Hole and The Wort Hotel, which they acquired in 2004.
The Baxters never set out to get into the hospitality business; they simply were looking for an investment that would keep them coming back.
"It's one of those places, when you're there, it just feels right and you think, 'Man, wouldn't it be cool to own just like 2 percent of this place, and then you'd have some great excuse to come out here," " said Bill Baxter, who initially looked into buying an industrial gas or propane company around Jackson.
Baxter, former TVA board chairman and Tennessee commissioner of economic development, is chairman of Holston Gases, which supplies industrial gases in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.
The timing wasn't right for Baxter to expand the family business into Wyoming but a new opportunity had emerged with the retirement of the Wort's general manager.
The Wort, whose founders sold the property in 1960, was then owned by Spring Creek Investors. Spring Creek general partner Tom Chrystie owned 60 percent and 12 out-of-state investors held various ownership stakes.
The Baxters sought to buy a 3 percent share from the general manager and subsequently were put in touch with other investors about the possibility of selling.
"We sent the letters thinking that maybe a couple of them would be interested. Every single one of them were. Three percent is where we started, and we ended up at 40," Baxter said.
A year later, the Baxters gained full ownership of the hotel and embarked on a complete renovation project. Baxter, who called the deal the easiest he'd ever done, declined to discuss costs but said the investment was in the millions. The hotel has an assessed property value of $900,921, according to the Teton County property assessor's office. Typically, market values exceed assessed property values.
The 59-room hotel is on target to have its fourth record year, and later this month, AAA will award the Wort with a four diamond rating, an accomplishment the Baxters set out to achieve four years ago.
Every dollar the hotel makes is reinvested back into the hotel.
"It pays its way. We don't take anything from it," Baxter said.
"It's more than a business," Baxter added. "We look at ourselves as being stewards of a real community asset."
Through its long history, the Wort has endured lean times and even a roof fire in 1980. And while some updates had been made, it had a "tired" feel, several locals said.
The Baxters immediately set in motion a plan to return the hotel to the premier status of its hey day.
Every guest room was remodeled to include new, rustic furniture, flat-screen televisions, Western art and bedding. A stuffed grizzly bear named Silver Dollar Sam greats guests upon entry. Five suites were created, each with a different theme -- Silver Dollar Suite (which mirrored the decor of the namesake bar and grill), Cowboy Suite, Cowgirl Suite, Teton Suite and Shoshone Suite.
Western art was added and sayings from Mae West and Mark Twain were painted on the walls of the hotel's public restrooms, an idea Baxter got from Northshore Brasserie, a French restaurant in West Knoxville.
"They were just plain, antiseptic. They could have been anywhere. They could have been in New Jersey," he said.
The restaurant was redone and conference rooms were added. The bar was expanded for live entertainment and dancing.
Baxter said he in half-jest told his Knoxville friends that he really bought a bar and a hotel was wrapped around it.
Learning a new business "has been a blast" for Baxter, who has two daughters who work at hotels in Washington, D.C., and Nashville.
Baxter travels to Jackson from Knoxville monthly, usually staying about a week to meet with the hotel's general manager, accountant and head of food and beverage. His wife, Ginger, accompanies him three or four times a year.
"It's two different businesses," he said. "You've got the hotel side and the food and beverage side, and they're completely different than the industrial gas business, or the propane business, or the real estate business."
The key for any business, Baxter said, is finding and keeping good people.
"That allows you to move from enterprise to enterprise with the bigger picture in mind. You don't have to get down in the weeds and talk about what kind of forks and spoons do we order. You build a team and give them the financial support and the business tools that they need. It's a vote of confidence to them," he said.
At the Wort, the point person is Jim Waldrop, who Baxter promoted to general manager when the Baxters took over the hotel. Baxter also instituted a seven-member board of directors that includes Ginger and their daughter Liz. The remaining directors are local residents.
One thing Baxter knew he wanted for the Wort was to again achieve AAA four-diamond status. The last time was in 1999.
The process was no small feat, involving a change in culture, Waldrop said. But Baxter provided the resources including a consultant who acted as a secret shopper to make it happen.
"It's a great achievement," Baxter told his Wort staff at recent director's meeting. "Fewer than 5 percent of all the hotels in America achieve four-diamond status. It's the elite, and that's all we want to be."
In Knoxville, Baxter relies on Robert Anders, president and CEO of Holston Gases, who runs the day-to-day operations.
"I can be there (Jackson) for two weeks a month and be gone two weeks a month and stay connected via e-mail and phone," Baxter said. "When you've got that kind of great management running it for you every day, then you can relax a little bit. I can come out here as often as I need to."
"I still am energetically involved in Holston," Baxter added. "We're doubling the size of the company. We've got one year under our belt of a five-year plan. We're right on track. So I'm real engaged there, but I've got the freedom to do this and other things. It's the best of both worlds."
Every Wednesday morning, about a dozen locals meet in the Wort's Silver Dollar Grill for their weekly gathering, a long-standing tradition dubbed the "coffee club." A large booth was added specifically for the group, complete with personalized coffee cups.
On this day, conversation swirls around such topics the appearance in Jackson that morning of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's wife, Cindy, at a Republican fund-raiser, the latest grizzly sighting, and, of course, sports.
When asked about the hotel's owners, longtime resident C.A. Poindexter said, "I've been here 45 years, and it's never been this good."
Terry Ray, owner of the West Lives on Gallery located across from the Wort, said the locals "know when somebody cares about them, and they know when they don't."
"When Bill got in there, he worked hard at getting locals back, and it shows. It's back home again for locals. Where the locals go, so will the tourists," Ray said.
Baxter is the only owner who ever came into John Boyer's Indian Arts and Crafts, located across the street from the Wort, and introduced himself.
That made a significant impression on Boyer, who is John Wort's grandson.
"It's nice to have someone who really cares about preserving the history," Boyer said. "He's been good for the hotel and the town."
The Baxters also have been good to employees.
They began offering a 401(k) retirement plan, with employer matching contributions, as well as a profit-sharing plan. The longer an employee stays, the better the benefits get. And for the second year, the Baxters have held a Mexican Independence Day celebration for their Hispanic employees, their families and friends. The event, complete with pony rides, face painting, food and this year, a parade, drew about 400 people.
"One of the first things Bill said was, 'I want to make this the best place to work in town. I want the best benefits and competitive wages," " Waldrop said. "I could not foresee a better situation. He blends the right amount of support and guidance with me running the hotel. It's a real nice balance and he does it just right."
Christie Reinhardt, the hotel's director of guest relations, said she initially was "a little stressed" when Baxter would come town but those worries quickly faded.
"He's so friendly so it puts everybody at ease," she said. "He always stops to say hello to the front desk or to the housekeepers. It's great. Employees have a lot of respect for him. It really starts at the top."
The previous owner had people coming daily wanting to buy the hotel, said Jackson native Margene Jenson, who called the Baxters "a blessing."
"He only wanted to sell it to a special person who would care for the hotel. That alone spoke volumes," Jenson said.
Sipping on a Long Island Ice Tea, Baxter scans the bar and smiles. Part of the fun in owning the hotel is thinking like a customer, he said.
"What looks attractive about the place, what is appealing, what makes me want to come back? Certainly friendly people who work here is a big part of it. You think about the comfort of the place and you think about the music and you think about the TVs," he said.
Baxter believes most people have "a hospitality gene" reminiscent of when company comes over for supper.
"When your guests arrive, you're the host and you welcome them, you attend to them and make sure they are happy and content and satisfied and had a wonderful evening, and then when they leave you're exhausted. You're ready to collapse, but you have a wonderful, warm feeling inside knowing you've been a good host or hostess.
"The hotel is the same thing multiplied by however many rooms you've got or guests you have," Baxter said. "When I'm out here I love welcoming people and playing host."
The Baxters said they feel lucky to have been at the right place, at the right time. They intend to be involved with the Wort for a long time.
"We want the hotel to be successful, and we like that there's tourists in town but we love the town itself. It's cool," Ginger Baxter said.
"It really is a special place," Bill Baxter added. "For us to end up in the position of being the stewards of this place, really for some period of time, it's just a great treat for us."
There have been plenty of times, Baxter said, that he has come into the bar, stood at the rear and just watched with pride.
"It just makes me smile this huge smile just watching all these people having a good time," he said. "People laughing and telling jokes, seeing friends, getting up there and dancin'. Some getting drunk and having a big time. It's just great. I love it."
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