|By Mike Copeland, Waco Tribune-Herald,
TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Feb. 21, 2007 - Gene Carter remembers when two real estate agents showed him the Waco Hilton Hotel for the first time.
To say he wasn't impressed is putting it mildly.
"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. There is no way I can make that place look good,'" he recalled at a news conference Tuesday.
But the project grew on him, and now he's about to spend nearly $17 million proving himself wrong.
Carter, owner of Dallas-based Western International, said his crews have begun transforming the Hilton from a downtown "eyesore" to a Hilton property "that wouldn't be out of place in San Francisco."
He promises a gourmet restaurant, valet parking, concierge service and $350,000 worth of landscaping to make the Hilton sparkle.
Business and community leaders turned out to hear Carter say his crews probably can complete a total redo of the 11-story hotel in eight months. Demolition has already begun in areas.
City Manager Larry Groth said the Hilton project fits nicely with other ventures that will change the face of downtown.
The Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce will build a new 14,000-square-foot headquarters next to Heritage Square downtown. And Houston-based Stonehenge Development will spend $50 million to place lofts, retail shops, offices and restaurants nearby.
"Having a quality hotel like this downtown is very significant," said Jim Vaughan, president of the Waco chamber. "Our building is going up just a block from here, so we will use the facilities of the hotel."
No doubt, Vaughan said, some industrial prospects visiting Waco and meeting with chamber staffers will want to stay at the Hilton.
When renovated, the property will have a private boardroom; more than 8,000 square feet of ballroom and meeting space; and more than 4,000 square feet of additional meeting breakout space that will open onto a private courtyard.
All 199 rooms are being gutted and will have new furniture, carpet, flat-panel TVs, high-speed Internet service and wireless accessories.
The building itself will get a new facade.
"We will remodel the ground floor first, then move to the top floor and work our way down," Carter said. Floors not being worked on will remain open.
Waco Mayor Virginia DuPuy called a renovated Hilton "the anchor piece" for downtown development. She said she is impressed by the level of quality Western International proposes to bring to the hotel.
Amenities will include 40 new chandeliers, upgraded business and fitness centers, a renovated pool and vanities with granite tops in the bathrooms.
The Hilton sits near the Waco Convention Center, and Carter said he hopes the remodeled hotel will have a renovated center as a companion.
A wish list prepared by the 120-member Capital Needs Assessment Committee includes $17.5 million for renovation of the center. It is one of several projects the public could consider in a May bond election.
"The convention center does need to be renovated," DuPuy said, "but that's up to the citizens to decide."
A renovated convention center would affect two Western International properties. Besides the Hilton, it has acquired the Courtyard by Marriott at 101 Washington Ave., and is remodeling it.
The city of Waco is contributing $3 million toward the total cost of renovating the Hilton. That cost once was about $11 million but has risen to nearly $17 million, said Carter, who continues to tweak and upgrade what he plans to spend "because I don't do anything halfway."
Besides, he said, Western International is family-owned, "so I can make a decision driving down the street."
Waco Councilman Jim Bush, a builder by trade, said he has reviewed Carter's plans for the Hilton redo and is impressed.
"It will be as first class as anything you will see in any major city," he said. "It will be equivalent to a four-star hotel."
Liz Taylor, executive director of the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she is excited about having a hotel of this quality to offer conventioneers and business customers.
Western International officials said rooms in the Hilton probably will run $149 to $189 a night to start. Some suites will bring more.
Some have suggested that the Hilton renovation is nice but that Waco needs yet another upscale convention hotel on Lake Brazos.
"The market will decide," Groth said.
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Copyright (c) 2007, Waco Tribune-Herald, Texas
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