|By Carol Biliczky, The Akron Beacon
Journal, OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 19, 2007 - Local officials are concerned about the University of Akron's plan to shut down the Crowne Plaza hotel. They say there's a need for another hotel to replace the three-star landmark that's stocked with memorabilia from the city of Akron's days as the heart of the oatmeal industry.
But the owner of the only competing hotel in downtown says that both the Crowne Plaza and his Radisson Hotel Akron City Centre have suffered from low occupancy for years -- and another hotel isn't needed.
"It should help us, yes," Akron industrialist David Brennan, owner of the Radisson, said of the closing of its rival. "But we should be able to easily accommodate whatever market need there is."
UA trustees agreed last week, pending state approval, to buy the Quaker Square shopping and office complex that includes the Crown Plaza for $22.7 million. The university plans to use the hotel's 190 round rooms as a residence hall for about 400 students as early as January.
Although UA had expressed interest previously in the storied hotel, that was for the use of its hospitality management students, UA President Luis Proenza said.
The university first considered entering a joint management agreement with the owner, Quaker Square Properties, in which the ownership eventually would have been transferred to the university. But that agreement didn't come to pass.
Several months ago, UA made an offer to buy the complex, but it was rejected.
"We thought the opportunity was, quite frankly, gone," Proenza said.
Quaker Square Properties, which is owned by Jay Nusbaum, approached the university in recent days, and the sale came to pass "uncannily fast," Proenza said.
The announcement surprised city and convention officials, who say they would have been planning to replace the hotel if they'd known what was going on.
Now they are playing catch-up, and say other hoteliers are making inquiries. Akron Deputy Mayor David Lieberth said the city has heard from three developers who might be interested in putting up a hotel.
Lieberth and other officials are lining up prospective property in the crowded city landscape that could serve a developer's purpose, although parking might be a problem, he said.
"I would assume that a hotel company would look at this as an opportunity," said Ray Merle, chairman of the Greater Akron Lodging Council. "It's an unmet need."
Gregg Mervis, vice president of the Akron/Summit Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he'd heard rumblings, too. "There seems to be much conversation going on with developers who have had interest in the past. Interest is resurfacing," he said.
Mixed occupancy reports
Lieberth and Mervis said both downtown hotels have been filled at times with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous for its annual convention, the All-American Soap Box Derby and company meetings.
They also say occupancy rates at the Crowne Plaza and the 274-room Radisson have hovered from the mid-70s to low 80s. That is a good deal higher than the Summit County occupancy rate of 53.5 percent and the state's 55.9 percent rate, according to Mervis.
"This is probably the single most successful year that we've ever had in the city," Lieberth said. "We've had weeks when you couldn't get a room."
But Brennan said those occupancy figures are way off.
Although neither he nor Roy Baine, marketing director of the Crowne Plaza, would provide occupancy rates for their hotels, Brennan said the number is "much less than 50 percent." That means that fewer than half the rooms in the two hotels are typically occupied.
The high occupancy rates "are not true. They've never been true," Brennan said. "I can assure you that neither hotel has enough business. Akron is not a destination city. We just aren't."
He said he would be stunned if the Crowne Plaza has an occupancy rate of more than 50 percent, even though it has a better location and gets the bulk of UA's business.
Brennan said he had no advance knowledge of the Quaker Square sale, even though his wife, Ann Amer Brennan, is a member of the UA board of trustees. She abstained from voting on the purchase of the property. He said he and his wife don't discuss their business dealings.
In the meantime, Mervis said the convention and visitors bureau has been assuring clients that the city will be able to accommodate their events even without the Crowne Plaza.
That might involve finding additional rooms for them at suburban hotels and providing buses to take convention-goers to and from the John S. Knight Center downtown, Mervis said.
"There has been enough business to support two major properties, but we had not reached critical mass to support three," Mervis said. "So I'm very confident we'll see something happen."
Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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