|By Rod Spaw, Herald-Times, Bloomington,
Ind.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 27, 2012--A $27 million Hyatt Hotel project moved forward Monday with a vote from the Bloomington City Council to vacate a downtown alley in the middle of the project site.
REI Investments and White Lodging, the same corporate team that developed and manages the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, plan to build a 168-room Hyatt on West Kirkwood Avenue between Gentry Street and the B-Line Trail.
Jeremy Stephenson, vice president for development of REI, said after the meeting that the company hopes to begin construction next spring and complete the hotel by the second quarter of 2014.
All the council needed to do was vacate a 25-foot, east-west alley right of way that already had been built upon when the property was used for drive-through banking services by Chase Bank. Yet it took two meetings and a 21/2-hour discussion Monday to bring the issue to a vote, which approved it by an 8-1 margin.
'Living wage' challenge
The lone holdout was council member Andy Ruff, who took the lead in challenging REI and White Lodging to address the low-salary practices of the hotel industry and adhere to Bloomington's "living wage" ordinance for the Hyatt development.
The ordinance requires certain vendors and organizations that do business with the city or receive benefits from it to pay their employees a "living wage." For 2012, that is $11.66 an hour, according to the city of Bloomington website. For 2013, it is $11.85 an hour. It is not applicable to private businesses and could not be made a requirement of the alley vacation.
Stephenson said the company could not commit to meeting the living wage standard. He said White Lodging would pay a competitive salary; he said the management company strives to be in the top 10 percent of its markets in terms of salaries for each classification of worker it employs.
He said REI would own 75 percent of the new hotel; White Lodging would own 25 percent and be in charge of its operation.
Workers' differing views
Concerns for the wages and working conditions of those on the lowest rung of the hotel industry ladder were underscored by statements from two women about their experiences working for hotels in Indianapolis.
The women, both of whom worked for a temporary employment agency that supplies housekeeping workers for hotels in downtown Indianapolis, told of working seven days a week for low pay and then having their checks shorted at the end of the pay period. They also spoke about being "blacklisted" for regular hotel employment, which effectively consigned them to being permanent temporary workers.
Mike Biskar is the lead Indianapolis organizer for Unite Here, a national union that represents hotel and food service workers. He told council members Monday that White Lodging was one of the companies that regularly use temporary workers to staff its hotels.
"We have seen in Indianapolis what completely unregulated White Lodging working conditions look like," Biskar said.
Those statements were countered by three current employees of White Lodging properties in Indianapolis and Bloomington, including two people who work at the Hilton Garden Inn.
They told council members about training and advancement they had received from White Lodging, which they praised for providing mentoring and professional development opportunities to employees.
The project also was endorsed by a Who's Who of Bloomington business and economic development: Jim Murphy, CFC Inc.; Mike McAfee, Visit Bloomington; Danise Alano-Martin, Bloomington Economic and Sustainable Development; Ron Stanhouse, Crazy Horse; Catherine Olmer, WonderLab; Talisha Coppock, Downtown Bloomington Inc. and the Bloomington/Monroe County Convention Center; and Larry Jacobs of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce.
All of those speakers talked about the project bringing much-needed hotel rooms and visitor revenue to downtown. In return for the alley right of way, they said the city would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in innkeeper taxes and additional revenue for the downtown tax increment finance district, which could be used for public improvements.
They said White Lodging had proved to be a good corporate citizen of Bloomington about whom they had heard no complaints.
Council members were sympathetic to the plight of low-wage workers, while also recognizing the public benefits that would be derived from the development.
Several members said they could vote for the project, but with reservations about the circumstances of low-wage workers in the hotel industry. They said the culture of Bloomington supported the right of workers to organize for decent pay and fair treatment, and they pledged to listen to future workers at the new Hyatt.
"We want to hear their stories and experiences," said council member Dave Rollo.
(c)2012 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.)
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