|By Joyce Lobeck, The Sun, Yuma,
Ariz.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Apr. 22, 2007 - There's not much to look at yet where the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel and Conference Center will be. Just a little dirt being moved around. But it's the start of a new image for Yuma's gateway, one many in the community believe will provide a vital turning point for redevelopment of the city's birthplace along the edge of the Colorado River.
"That area was pretty dilapidated," said Charles Flynn, head of the Yuma Heritage Area, not a pretty sight for travelers passing through Yuma.
"There was a lot of vacant lot, overgrown brush and the water treatment plant," he said. "No wonder people from Phoenix have such a poor image of Yuma."
Bit by bit, that's been changing. There's the recently completed renovation of Main Street, the $4-million Gateway Park project and restoration of the wetlands. The strategy for revitalizing the historic north end also included creating two major anchors: the new City Hall on the south end and the planned hotel and conference center on the north end, Flynn said.
Within a year, the new image from Interstate 8 will be of a "beautiful, four-story hotel and an improved park next to it," Flynn said.
"The overall heritage area is being improved," he said. And while the new structures will be modern, an effort is being made to not only preserve the area's historic nature but to emulate it.
"Clearly, the hotel will be modern," Flynn said, "but it will fit in the historic district."
In some ways, it will resemble the original riverfront hotel, the old Southern Pacific Hotel built off Madison Avenue, the original route for the railroad that was built across Arizona in 1877.
"That had a huge impact on Yuma's economy," noted Tina Clark, the city archivist. "That hotel was the very nicest place to stay in Yuma. It was right on the river's edge."
At the time, the city's population probably was around a thousand people, Clark said. "Think about the vision to build the hotel. Imagine coming from Los Angeles and stopping in Yuma ... being attracted by the river and a nice hotel."
Backers of the Hilton Garden Inn and Conference Center are hoping that project will have much the same effect on the community in this century.
The new hotel will be located on the west side of Madison Avenue, while the original Southern Pacific Hotel was on the east side. But in the desire to preserve the historic nature of the riverfront, Flynn said, "the city felt it was important to maintain the historic alignment of the railroad."
That's where the name Pivot Point comes in for the entire riverfront redevelopment effort.
Little remains of the original railroad or the bridge that spanned the once mighty Colorado River, despite its significance as one of the most important spots on the southern transcontinental railroad system in the 1800s.
The one thing that does remain is the concrete for a structure that was in the midst of the once much wider river on which the railroad bridge would swing or "pivot," opening the way for steamboats.
Today, that structure, or pivot point, no longer is in the middle of the river but on dry land, Flynn said. It will become integral to a historic interpretation of those early railroad days, with an observation deck, laser lights showing where the railroad once crossed the river and the sound of a ghost train chugging along. And the 1907 locomotive currently on display at the Yuma Crossing Park will be moved to the area.
"We'll be using 21st-century technology to show what the site looked like 130 years ago," Flynn said. "We're trying to find creative ways to bring history to life."
Yuma's north end "is some of the most important historic real estate in the West," Clark said.
That private developer Craig Clark is being allowed to build a hotel in the historic preservation area "is a rarity," Flynn said. "His marketing people realized that history sells. We're wanting to leverage that history to make this private investment authentic."
Tina Clark said there's a growing interest in history by the public.
"People want to feel what happened, to learn something," she said. "We believe the best way to tell history is by bringing it to life, not just with a lot of words on a big plaque."
With all the elements of the riverfront redevelopment, people will have access to a variety of experiences, Clark said. The Hilton Garden Inn guests will be able to enjoy the downtown, visit historic sites, tour the restored wetlands and hike or bike the created trails.
"We're on the cusp of a change in tourism," she said. "The baby boomers are looking for cultural and historical experiences. They want to eat local foods, visit local shops, have a heritage experience."
The environmental movement is "also huge," Clark said. "We will have one stop for history and the environment and be business friendly."
One challenge to the riverfront project was the need for a premium hotel brand, said Flynn. "I think we all agree that the Hilton name brings a certain touch of class. The Hilton Garden Inn is a very good brand."
That's important, Clark added, as "big names start to notice Yuma; they want a nice place to stay."
Clark said the hotel is expected to attract a new class of visitor, predicting that as Palm Springs has become pricier, business people will be looking for a new destination for conferences with the amenities Yuma will be able to offer along the riverfront.
"That's the reason San Diego investors are looking to Yuma," she said. "People in San Diego see the potential of Yuma.
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6853.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Sun, Yuma, Ariz.
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