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West Virginia University Could Find Itself in the Hotel Business,
the Waterfront Place Hotel Eyed as a Laboratory for the
 University's Hospitality Program
By Ry Rivard, Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

August 04, 2010 --MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia University could find itself in the hotel business.

The owners of Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown have been talking with WVU officials about a relationship that may include giving the university the entire 17-story building.

WVU officials were reluctant to discuss the talks, which have been going on for months but are still described as "preliminary." Hotel officials declined to comment.

But the university's top financial officer, Narvel Weese, said he has discussed a range of options with Waterfront Place Hotel representatives. It's not clear who those representatives are.

The hotel was built by Milan Puskar, the founder of Mylan Pharmaceuticals, and by real estate magnate and former WVU Board of Governors member Parry Petroplus. A third partner, Steve Lorenze, has since been bought out.

Weese said the options include the university getting discount rates at the hotel; operating the hotel's conference center; and partnering with the hotel as a laboratory for the university's hospitality program.

Or something bigger could happen.

"One of the options we have put on the table is the discussion about the entire building," Weese said.

He and university spokeswoman Becky Lofstead emphasized in a telephone interview that the discussions were preliminary. Weese described them as "relationship discussions."

"It's just a little early to even talk about that at this point," Weese said.

But the talks have been going on for several months.

Weese said he is working on "a relationship that would be good for us and good for them."

"We're two parties trying to figure out if there is a way to move forward," he said.

Right now the planning is so preliminary the university's facilities department has apparently not been asked to weigh in, although they are typically asked to do so when it comes to property acquisitions.

If an agreement is reached, Weese said there would be lots of opportunities for people, including the university's board of governors, to assess the proposal.

It is not clear why the hotel's owners have entered the discussion or why they might consider shedding the multi-million building, which is one of the state's premiere hotels and is used frequently for conferences.

Petroplus did not return calls seeking comment. The hotel's general manager, Dan Watts, had a spokeswoman refer comments to WVU.

The Waterfront Place Hotel is part of a complex that includes a WVU administrative building and a parking garage. The project was conceived a decade or so ago and helped redevelop Morgantown's so-called Wharf District. The hotel, which was once a Radisson, has since gone independent.

While having a state agency oversee a hotel would be unusual, it would not be unheard of.

West Virginia's state park system, for instance, generates 60 percent of its $35 million budget by charging visitors for lodging, for food and to play golf.

WVU also frequently uses the Waterfront Place Hotel to host events and to put up guests, which could make even a limited partnership potentially beneficial.

There is, however, a somewhat spotty history of land donations to state higher education institutions.

The Dow Chemical Co., for instance, donated a former office tower in South Charleston, Building 82, to the University of Charleston. Dow valued the gift at $7 million. However, the Kanawha County Assessor's Office said that for tax purposes, the market value of the tower was $3.2 million and the value of the property behind it was $1 million.

The university originally said it wanted to turn the vacant building into living quarters for about 100 of its graduate students. But UC later determined that renovating would cost up to $10 million.

In March 2009, demolition crews blew up the building, and UC is marketing the cleared site.

In 2008, WVU passed on Dow's offer to donate a 58-acre parcel of its South Charleston tech park. WVU did not want to take on the insurance requirements needed to protect it from possible environmental liabilities, and university officials could not find ways to productively use the land.

Dow has since donated the whole tech park to the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

In 1986, WVU officials accepted 2,000 acres of coal land from Consolidation Coal Co., a donation the school then touted as the biggest-ever corporate gift.

A newspaper investigation in 1993 found that while WVU profited from mining on its property, the university received $540,000 in mining royalties for what Consol said was property worth more than $5.6 million.

The WVU Foundation Inc., the university's private fundraising arm, sold the rest of the coal and the land for $850,000 in 1991, according to the report.

Contact writer Ry Rivard at ry.rivard@dailymail.com or 304-348-1796.

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To see more of the Charleston Daily Mail, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.dailymail.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.

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