|By Sandra Baker, Fort Worth
Star-Telegram, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 21, 2010 --Mineral Wells officials and a development team that includes Southlake real estate professionals say they may be running out of time in their last big push to find $54 million to pay for the renovation of the Baker Hotel in downtown Mineral Wells.
Known worldwide, the 14-story building that has hosted such famous guests as Judy Garland has been vacant since 1972. Thirty-eight years of neglect are taking a toll, and the longer the 250,000-square-foot structure stays empty, the harder and more expensive it's going to be to fix it.
"This is the most legitimate hope and possibly the last hope," said Mark Rawlings, vice president of HHCC general contracting firm in Austin, a development team member. "We're ever so close."
Last month, a group that loosely calls itself the Baker development team persuaded a Texas Department of Rural Affairs board to at least continue gathering more information to help it decide whether to support pursuing a $20 million Housing and Urban Development Section 108 loan, a financing source for economic development.
The group has identified about $29 million from other sources, including historic tax credits and the establishment of a tax increment finance district, but still needs to raise $5 million, said Laird Fairchild, with Hunter Chase Capital Partners in Southlake. Fairchild has spent the last few years spearheading the redevelopment efforts.
Fairchild said he also recently met with officials from the North Central Texas Council of Governments seeking their support of the Section 108 loan, the linchpin to making the deal work. A Dallas businessman last tried to buy the hotel about four years ago.
The development group wants to start construction early next year to turn the 450-room hotel into a four-star property with 155 rooms, a top-floor ballroom, meeting and conference rooms, and a spa that will return its famous mineral baths.
'Vitality' for the city
Magnate T.B. Baker built the hotel; he also owned the Baker Hotel in Dallas and the St. Anthony in San Antonio. It opened in 1929 when its mineral waters were all the craze. An Arizona man inherited the property and now owns it. In 1982, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
Depending how financing is set up, Mineral Wells would be willing to buy the property and lease it back to the hotel group on a long-term basis, City Manager Lance Howerton said.
That's how important this redevelopment project is for the town of 17,450 west of Fort Worth, he said.
"Conceptually, the city is willing to do that," Howerton said. "We're looking at a wide series of alternatives for funding and where the ownership needs to be."
The Mineral Wells Industrial Foundation and the Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce also support the project.
Mike Allen, the Mineral Wells mayor, said redeveloping the hotel will "pump vitality" into the city. The redevelopment could bring as many as a few hundred people a day to the city who will be spending money at shops and restaurants, he said.
Development team members were all drawn to the building's grandeur and history, and they want to see the structure in use again. It has more than 6,000 friends on Facebook and nearly 4,000 views on a YouTube video done by Austin producer Kevin Pruitt. There's even someone trying to pitch the possible redevelopment as a reality show to Hollywood executives, Fairchild said.
"Over the last six weeks, it has caught a lot of attention," Fairchild said. "The town is really kind of desperate for the building to be revitalized. It will change the entire downtown area."
Seen as a top destination
A Houston hotel consulting firm found that, if operated properly, the hotel could emerge as a top meeting and event destination hotel, said Jeff Trigger, owner of the Austin-based hotel management and consulting firm LaCorsha Hospitality.
LaCorsha would operate the redeveloped Baker Hotel, he said.
When he got a call to come take a look at the property, Trigger said, "I was totally intrigued with just getting inside. I had been by it many times. It's a gorgeous property."
Besides the building, Trigger said he was attracted to the project because of the community support.
"This is not a developer's dream, this is a city's dream," Trigger said. "Ultimately, we believe this thing is going to happen, and when it does, the ripple effect through the community and region is going to be strong."
Rawlings has spent many unpaid days at the hotel, trekking between floors doing his best to determine costs and listing what needs to be done. He anticipates it will take two years to renovate, and he will use subcontractors from Mineral Wells to do the work.
"It's their town. it's their hotel. We don't want to let them down," he said.
Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727
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