|By Andrew Barksdale, The Fayetteville
Observer, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 17, 2008 - John Chen wants to transform the Prince Charles Hotel into a building that leases retail and office space and offers large, luxurious suites and extended-stay rooms.
Chen, who bought the downtown Fayetteville landmark at auction last winter for $1.9 million, says he is modeling his idea after the boutique-style hotels in major cities that offer an array of personalized service -- not just a room for the night.
Chen, a real-estate investor in Queens, N.Y., has no experience running hotels. He owns a 330-space parking garage and has built a nine-story office condominium complex in New York.
With his hotel purchase, he inherits some obstacles. The Prince Charles fell into disrepair and ill-repute under its previous owner, R.K. Properties of Rockville, Md. That company filed for bankruptcy protection in April 2007 after creditors said it owed them more than $4 million. Hotel guests complained of cramped rooms, mildew, faulty outlets and a lack of air conditioning.
"I'm looking for a challenge," Chen said.
Chen, who is 49, has taken up residence in a suite on the seventh floor. He moved from New York City, where his wife and two children live. Chen, who is lean with short-cropped hair, doesn't own a car. One weekend a month, he said, he walks to the Amtrak station next door and takes a train to New York.
Chen has wasted no time trying to turn things around. He has hired two people with contracting and marketing experience to drive his vision for the 83-year-old hotel.
His co-managers are overseeing work to remodel the building, room by room, and turning the first and second floors into retail and office space. As new tenants are signed, rooms on those floors will be renovated. The hotel has a pub, a coffee shop and a restaurant so far on the first floor.
At a cost of more than $100,000, Chen installed a cooling tower and two smaller air conditioners. He has expanded wireless Internet service throughout the eight-story building.
About two-thirds of the hotel's 92 rooms are available again after his employees made minor improvements. To save energy, he orders air-conditioning to be kept off in rooms until they are rented.
The building's outside needs attention, too. The flaking window trims need fresh coats of paint. One boarded-up window facing Hay Street needs to be replaced. A roof over the eighth-floor balcony needs to be repaired.
The condition of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, did not surprise him, he said.
"I think it's still acceptable," he said. "It's what you would expect for a building this age."
The hotel was a popular destination in its earlier days, but it had begun to decay in the 1970s. The city eventually condemned and closed it. By the early 1990s, local investors led by Dr. Menno Pennink bought it for $950,000, renovated it and reopened it as part of the Radisson chain. Pennink and his partnership of investors sold the Prince Charles in 2004 to R.K. Properties. The company president, Rakesh Kaushal, had never run a hotel before.
Pennink said he has met Chen several times, and he likes his ideas for the hotel.
"As long as it's kept as a hotel," he said. "That is very crucial to our downtown, and it needs to be upscale."
Pennink, a downtown investor, said high occupancy rates in the city center will propel Chen's plan to lease retail and office space on the first two floors.
"He paid for the hotel in cash," Pennink said. "I think he is a clever man, and I think he is banking on the future, not just two or three years from now."
Chen has launched a Web site to market the building, which he has renamed the Hotel Prince Charles. He made the change, he said, after finding a 1960s-era photograph of the hotel with a sign on the roof bearing the same name.
For now, a red Clarion sign remains atop the building. Chen said that hotel chain owns the sign and has not removed it yet. He intends to keep his hotel independent.
Chen acknowledged he has yet to turn a profit on the hotel. On some weeknights, only five to 10 rooms are occupied, he said. To help generate interest, he is offering summer specials for rooms at $69 and $99 a night. He said he sold out one weekend in early August for a family reunion without any advertising.
"It just came to us," he said.
Chen said he has no regrets about uprooting to Fayetteville. The city's customer service and charm of downtown helped lure him here. In New York, he said, he has to wait 10 minutes on the phone to reach someone in the planning office. Here, he said, he can walk across the street to City Hall and meet the planning director without an appointment.
"It's nice," he said.
Staff writer Andrew Barksdale can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3565.
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