|By Mason Adams, The Roanoke Times,
Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 03, 2012--A Greenville, S.C.-based company wants to buy the ground floor of the city-owned Market Garage, as well as the air rights above it, to build a 123-room hotel in the heart of downtown Roanoke.
South Commonwealth Partners intends to pay $800,000 to purchase 11,500 square feet of retail space and a garage on the building's ground floor to develop a full-service lobby and then build the 123 rooms on top of the structure, according to an item on the city council's agenda for its regular Monday meeting.
City officials have recommended the council schedule a public hearing at its second meeting this month, on Aug. 20, on the sale of the ground floor and air rights to the six-story Market Garage, which stands next to historic Fire Station No. 1 at Church Avenue and Market Street.
"They're going to be building, I think, a Hampton Inn on top of that building by the old firehouse," said Roanoke Mayor David Bowers. "They'll be occupying the first floor as kind of a lobby and then there'll be an elevator up to the additional floors."
Bowers had predicted during his re-election campaign this spring that the skyline of downtown Roanoke was going to change. And on Thursday, after the council's agenda packet went public, he sounded pleased.
"This is only the beginning of a new beginning," Bowers said. "There's more to come."
City Manager Chris Morrill said this deal has been in the works since March 2011, when Downtown Roanoke Inc. President Sean Luther and Roanoke Regional Partnership Executive Director Beth Doughty traveled to Greenville to meet with the development group, which specializes in building hotels in downtown districts. The group then traveled to Roanoke for a visit.
"I think they were amazed with Roanoke, with how active the downtown was," Morrill said. "They had experience in other similar downtowns. They seem to have good skills in determining when to develop hotels, when a downtown is about to take off."
Morrill said the group has previously developed projects for Hilton Worldwide, a global company that operates a variety of hotel brands, including Hampton Inn.
Luther said that he and Doughty brought the group in, looked at several sites and "had them pretty well wrapped up on a surface parking lot" before they noticed the Market Garage almost on a fluke.
"They said, 'Why didn't you lead with that?'" Luther said. "They're concerned with the vitality of the areas where they build. After dinner they wanted to go and just walk and see who was out. And they liked that Market Garage property because it's right in the thick of things. I think that serves as a great counterpoint to the Hotel Roanoke. That corridor is the backbone of the downtown experience right now."
Morrill said the ensuing discussion with the group evolved into negotiations that have taken months to reach this point. The proposed sale also involves a "separate but related" development agreement outlining the roles and responsibilities of the developer, as well as a parking and maintenance agreement.
During the negotiations, rumors of the project trickled out on a regular basis. It didn't help that DRI scheduled its annual meeting earlier this summer on the roof of the Market Garage, largely in hopes of being able to announce the project then.
"It's the worst-kept secret in Roanoke," Morrill said.
Vice Mayor Court Rosen said the news that developers with a reputation for building hotels on parking garages in downtown areas are now coming to Roanoke is exciting.
Bowers traced the origins of the project back to his first stint as mayor in the 1990s. He said then-City Manager Bob Herbert approached the council about reinforcing the garage structure so that it could serve as the foundation for further development.
"Back in those days, we were thinking a condo might be built on top," Bowers said. "The foresight of Bob Herbert and Roanoke City Council back in the '90s has helped result in the development of a new hotel downtown now."
In 2008, the city invested more than $6 million into the expansion and renovation of the Market Garage. The renovation work took place through 2009, and the garage reopened in early 2010.
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