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At Age 80, Billings Entreprenuer Building His First Hotel -
 a $ 6 million La Quinta Inn
By Jan Falstad, Billings Gazette, Mont.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Dec. 11, 2005 - Former Billings car dealer Ted Godwin and Realtor Charlie Gamble were standing near Johnny Carino's Italian Restaurant last spring talking about what to do with 2-acre lots just off of King Avenue West.

Gamble suggested building a hotel.

"I don't know anything about hotels," Godwin said.

After contacting numerous potential tenants, Gamble said he had a cell phone number for a representative of La Quinta, a hotel chain based in Dallas. So, he dialed the Portland-based area representative to try to set up an appointment.

"I called him on his cell phone and he was here in Billings," Gamble said.

Three months of negotiations later, Godwin and his wife, Martha, and their daughter, Sheri Olsen, owned the La Quinta hotel franchise for Yellowstone County.

The project, scheduled to open in May, will cost almost $6 million. Workers had 30 truckloads of concrete poured for the footings before having an unscheduled break.

"We were ahead of schedule until this winter spell," Godwin said.

The family corporation is fashioned out of their first initials: T.M.S. Inc., and all three Godwins serve on the board.

Longtime Billings friends Robert and Jane Richardson also have invested money and time in this project.

So how come Godwin, who just turned 80, is still working?

"It's making the deal, doing the deal, creating something," he said. "When you're going to do a deal, you never think about the money."

Pouring a future

In January 2004, Godwin bought four acres along King Avenue West and South 30th Street West from his friend, Gamble, subdivided them and kept the two back lots.

Johnny Carino's bought one lot fronting King Avenue. Casino developer Philip Keith, who is opening 12th Planet by Rimrock Mall, bought another and plans on building a casino/steakhouse.

Godwin may not have done a hotel before, but he ran three car dealerships in Billings over the years and dabbled in real estate. He bought his first dealership in 1965 at 1532 Grand Ave., which was the busiest street in Montana then.

"We didn't have turn lanes and West Park Plaza was the newest mall in Montana and the only mall in Billings," he said.

By Christmas, Godwin hopes to have a couple of rooms roughed in so La Quinta's architect can fly here to check the work, including placement of all the electrical outlets. Make a mistake in one room, he said, and it can cost $1,000 to fix.

"But you make that mistake 87 times and you've spent $87,000," he said. "It's critical we satisfy their expectations."

The hotel will have a pool, a meeting room and rooms for physically handicapped and hearing-impaired guests.

Pat Ludden Construction of Billings is the general contractor, and Rocky Mountain Bank is financing the deal.

Bob Richardson, who retired 20 years ago as vice president at First Federal Savings & Loan, and Jane are staying active in the hotel project.

"I know people who sit and think life is boring," she said. "Not as long as you're well and healthy and interested in what's going on."

Consultants ahoy -

Building a hotel is one thing. Running it is another.

Godwin hired an experienced consultant, Alan Elliott, now managing the Billings Sheraton, to set up this deal.

Elliott owns a hospitality consulting business and has managed properties in Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Elliott Inn, the Holiday Inn Grand Montana and the Northern Hotel in Billings. He also served as director of the Department of Commerce under Gov. Stan Stevens, R-Mont.

The La Quinta chain is a growing corporation with midcost, limited-service hotels. Billings will capitalize on the success of the three other Montana La Quintas -- in Kalispell, Bozeman and Great Falls -- Elliott said.

"It's just so much fun to be involved with such a great business and a great gentleman," he said.

Last month, The Blackstone Group, a New York City-based venture capital company, bought La Quinta Corp. and La Quinta Properties. But that doesn't faze Elliott, who said hotel chains get bought and sold all the time.

Even as Billings builds more hotel and motel rooms, Elliott said the occupancy rate hasn't changed much.

"I wish we were in a high-occupancy rate with high rates, but we're not," he said. "We're in the 60 percent range in Billings."

He has helped the La Quinta project since its inception and will be helping to hire and train the staff.

All in the family

Olsen, who teaches music and movement to kids through a program called Music Garden, will help manage her family's hotel.

She has gained sales and marketing experience at St. Vincent Healthcare, Mission Ridge, First Bank and Hennessy's.

When her father announced that he was building a hotel, Olsen was surprised but supportive.

"At age 80, he's embarking on a new adventure and he's just excited about it," she said. "He's just a natural."

The daughter seems built from the same mold.

"I like adventure and I'm just willing to do whatever I can to make this succeed," she said.


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Copyright (c) 2005, Billings Gazette, Mont.

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