|By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette,
W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 13, 2009 - CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Greenbrier County Chamber of Commerce's executive director hears speculation every day about who might be interested in purchasing The Greenbrier resort: MGM Mirage casinos, Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Donald Trump.
"There's just been a lot of speculation, a lot of names flying around, but nothing concrete," said Katie Crickenberger Ickes. "At this point, everyone here would just love seeing something happen."
Of all the rumors, Marriott International's possible interest in The Greenbrier seems to have the most juice, thanks to West Virginia football legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Sam Huff.
Huff worked for Marriott for 27 years. He believes Marriott might be interested in managing or owning the storied resort.
"Marriott and Gov. Joe Manchin, I understand, are interested in helping the resort get back on its feet," said Huff, who was eating lunch at The Greenbrier on Thursday. "This is 'Almost Heaven,' and The Greenbrier is the finest resort in the world. It's down somewhat, but we can bring this back."
The resort's owner, railroad giant CSX Inc., wants to sell The Greenbrier, saying it has lost millions of dollars on the property during the past several years. CSX has hired the Goldman Sachs investment firm to evaluate the posh resort.
Marriott spokesman Tom Mardner said Wednesday that the hotel chain doesn't comment on "market rumor or speculation."
Mardner noted that Marriott has a "significant portfolio" of resorts throughout the world, most under the "J.W. Marriott" name. Those include resorts in Las Vegas; Phoenix; Oahu, Hawaii; Orlando, Fla.; Tucson, Ariz.; Desert Springs, Calif.; and Thailand.
Huff suggested that private investors, including WVU basketball legend and NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West, possibly could buy The Greenbrier and have Marriott manage it.
"The difference in the new management would be CSX runs railroads and Marriott runs hotels and resorts," said Huff, who owns 5 percent of the Charleston Marriott. "They're the biggest hotel company in the world now. I talked to the governor, and he's interested in helping the situation."
Huff said he knows Marriott Chief Executive Officer Bill Marriott "very well."
"I know the whole family," Huff said. "When Bill Marriott is ready to make a move ... if Joe Manchin wants Marriott to be a part of this, maybe it will fit together, but it's a long way from coming together."
Manchin spokesman Matt Turner said Thursday that the governor briefly talked to Bill Marriott at a recent National Governors' Association meeting in Washington, D.C. They discussed The Greenbrier during a luncheon meeting.
"Gov. Manchin is very hopeful that Mr. Marriott is interested, and he also understands there is interest from other parties," Turner said in a release. "[The governor] will facilitate anything and everything we possibly can to keep the Greenbrier open and to keep those great jobs there."
Greenbrier spokeswoman Lynn Swann said Goldman Sachs' strategic review is ongoing. However, she declined to comment on Marriott's possible interest in the resort.
"All options remain on the table and no final decision has been made," Swann said.
The resort's workers have been kept in the dark about any negotiations to purchase the hotel.
"The only thing that I can say about the Marriot rumor is just that: until CSX substantiates it, it is a rumor," said union leader Peter Bostic. "I have no information, nor have I been given any indication from CSX that this rumor is true."
Ickes said potential Greenbrier suitors are likely waiting to see whether state legislators amend a 1999 law to allow the four-star resort to retain a greater percentage of gambling profits.
Four Greenbrier County legislators are sponsoring the bill.
The change would allow the resort to keep an extra $8 million to $11 million a year in gambling revenue. Last year, Greenbrier County voters approved a referendum that allows gambling at the 231-year-old hotel.
"There are people interested in purchasing the hotel, but they want to see what happens to the legislation," Ickes said. "This will make a big difference for any potential buyer."
CSX has said the resort lost $35 million last year, struggling with cancellations and a labor dispute.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.
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