|By Morris Fraser, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 17, 2004 - Mattresses are stacked high in the lobby. Room refrigerators and television sets are in ordered ranks in the gift shop. But the guest rooms are empty.
The historic Holiday Inn/Radisson is closing an era of tourism on what was once known as Tower Beach of more than 50 years.
Owner French Quarter, which has operated the beach resort as the Radisson on Okaloosa Island since Jan. 1, 1998, has sold the property to Crescent Resources of Charlotte, N.C., which plans to build condominiums.
Crescent builds high-end developments, notably in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona and Texas, as well as Orlando and Tampa.
Tom Webb, vice president of residential development, said Crescent expects to close in early November. Until then, he said, Crescent could not comment further.
Closing a "house" is a bothersome event in the hospitality industry, which strives to create a personal relationship with guests.
"I've opened three hotels," said Marc Leffman, general manager of the hotel and president of the management company that operates it. "(Closing one) is disheartening." "I'm sort of misty-eyed that this is happening," said Michael Burke, executive housekeeper and four-year employee at the Radisson. "It'll be a sad day Nov. 1."
On that day, the lights go out, Leffman shuts off the centerpiece fountain in the lobby, and soon demolition will begin on a hotel that was among the first that supported the tourist industry on what a writer of the day, Claude Jenkins, termed the Miracle Strip.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. French Quarter was going to sell to Marriott International, which planned to introduce its Courtyard brand to Okaloosa Island. Leffman came from Atlanta last November to get the resort in shape, expecting to turn over the keys in the second half of the year.
But Hurricane Ivan changed everyone's plans.
Damage was so great it wasn't economically feasible to rebuild to accommodate Marriott. Crescent reportedly plans to demolish all or part of the existing structures.
After 37 years in the hotel business, Leffman knows how to close up shop, even if he doesn't like to do it. Of 1,400 employees, a handful are left to inventory and sort supplies, equipment and furniture.
Most employees had to find other jobs. Some equipment and employees will go to next-door Hampton Inn, which French Quarter still owns. Some property will go to a liquidator, which will handle sales of items French Quarter doesn't need. The rest of the physical property will go to Radisson properties in New York City and Atlanta.
Jessica Young, food and beverage manager, who is helping to supervise inventory, said even the sugar packets and coffee stirrers will be accounted for. "Anything left in the building Nov. 1 will belong to the new owner," she said. In a tight economy, every little item assumes spreadsheet importance.
The land under the hotel has a commercial history dating back to the 1950s, when brothers Julius and James Miller helped form Tower Beach Inc. and built the Tower Beach casino, according to Julius' son Jerry, an attorney.
The beach and casino were popular destinations for local residents, especially after the company built a 16-unit motel and later expanded it with 24 more units.
"My father and mother were the first to create commercial work along what is now Beal Parkway," the younger Miller said. "If they saw something would be good for the area, they worked to do that." About 1970 the Holiday Inn came on board and because of conflicting business interests the Tower Beach group sold to an investor group from Panama City, according to Jerry Miller.
Don Madden bought the Holiday Inn in 1975, at 22-plus years its longest-running owner. He sold it to French Quarter in June 1997.
"We wish them luck in what they do," he said. "We had good times, good memories." For Madden, it was a family business. He had owned six Holiday Inns in his home state of Arkansas and in Texas, at 32 the youngest ever to own a Holiday Inn franchise, before moving to Florida and buying this one. His wife Julia and four sons -- John, Don Jr., Rick and Bob -- worked at the inn.
"We wanted to get here in the spring semester (at Choctawhatchee High School) so John could become acquainted before football season," he said.
"My wife took over the gift shop and made it into a boutique. She made the job a sort of concierge, bringing in coffee so people didn't have to run downtown." In fact, he said, a lot of local residents worked for him over the years.
"We made a lot of friends there." One former employee didn't know Madden but counted his first summer job good work experience.
Attorney Terry Ketchel was a groundskeeper before his sophomore year at Choctaw.
"I was 14, but I guess I got in under the radar because I was 6-2," he said. His friend, Rip Miller, now a boat captain in Destin, got him a job under his father, Charlie Miller.
"It was a great positive experience," Ketchel said. "It gave me exposure to the hospitality industry and convinced me I wanted to work inside." Madden said the movie crew of "Jaws II" stayed at the Holiday Inn as it filmed nearby, and also remembered astronaut Jim Lovell.
He said Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, was scheduled to stay at one point but an emergency forced cancellation of his plans. "The Secret Service had one entire floor underneath his," Madden recalled.
The best memory for Madden was having his entire family working with him.
The worst was Hurricane Opal.
"There was four feet of sand on the first floor," he said.
Bob Madden remembered the New Year's Eve parties that filled the entire lobby and back to the conference rooms.
"Mr. (Marvin) Debolt had his (Daily News) Christmas parties there," he said. "Every area had a different theme, a different food. We patterned the New Year's Eve parties after that, Chinatown in one place, something else in another." Young has worked at the Radisson for more than two years. Her biggest impression is what has happened to customer service within the last year.
"The CTR (complaints per thousand rooms) has improved," she said. "Before Marc came, it hadn't been very good. We didn't have supplies on hand. If a guest wanted an extra pillow, we didn't have it."
"But Marc, being vice president of Radisson, could get all that. That made the employees happier because they got to do their jobs." She appreciated the renovation of the restaurant, renamed Crabby Cakes, into a place where kids could draw with crayons on the butcher paper tablecloths, and servers would write their names upside down on the paper.
"Just fun things." She also liked the ice cream bar in its Island DeLites snack area. "We would make $1,000 to $2,000 off ice cream a day," she said.
She said the Radisson standard of customer service is nine complaints per thousand rooms. With Leffman's direction, the hotel CTR went to as low as two per thousand, no more than seven per thousand in the busiest times.
"We had a $15,000 wedding scheduled the day after the hurricane," she said. "We had Christmas parties booked, everyone who had booked the year before and more new ones." Young worries about her 50 employees who lost their jobs when the hotel closed to guests. "I'm wondering what's going to happen to them." She will take some time off to spend with her 9-year-old and 2-year-old, then look for a job in catering or banquet sales.
Burke, who was in engineering before being asked to take over housekeeping, will stay in the area after spending some time helping Leffman at the Radisson property at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City.
"I'm weighing my options, but we have a home here," he said.
Meanwhile, the winding lobby presents a surreal appearance in its final days. Message boards note the date of Sept. 13 and two events in meeting rooms. Tourist brochures fill card racks, and copies of the Sept. 23 edition of The Beachcomber newspaper are scattered on a table.
The fountain, with two blue heron statues standing guard, rains into a pond near the two elevators.
Workers wheel carts of pillows amid the stacked furniture and over floors taped with black plastic.
On the mezzanine, video arcade games are lit, but no one plays them.
Toward the rear of the lobby, Island DeLites has become a break room and conference area for managers as they hold morning briefings with Leffman.
Crabby Cakes holds furniture and pool tables, and the aquarium that once held 100 hermit crabs is empty -- only 25 survived the stress of the storm, and they have been sent to Young's daycare center, the Child Care Network.
Leffman's prized fish tank, which he started with 10 goldfish and now is inhabited by the same 10 fish and additional Jack Dempseys, will be carefully transported next door to the Hampton.
On a display table at the main entrance is a prepared card: "Thanks for making Radisson your genuine choice. Indulge your senses. Spoil yourself rotten. Savor every moment."
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