|By Harvey Rice, Houston
ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
October 1, 2009 --GALVESTON -- The once proud Flagship Hotel, which for decades stood as one of the most prominent features on Galveston Island, has been reduced to a battered, unwanted reminder of the devastation Hurricane Ike brought to the city more than a year ago.
Built on a pier that juts 1,000 feet into the Gulf of Mexico, the seven-story Flagship is the only major structure in the beachfront tourism district that still bears the scars of the Sept. 13, 2008, storm. The concrete drive linking the hotel to Seawall Boulevard is shorn away, and blown-out walls reveal the interior, in one place allowing a view straight through the building.
"It's that one remaining symbol of the damage of Hurricane Ike," said RoSchelle Gaskins, spokeswoman for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It comes up as the one thing people always say still makes it look like we're damaged."
Now the future of the Flagship is uncertain as its owners reconsider their decision to demolish the hotel while assuring the city that everything necessary is being done to address building code violations.
After receiving complaints, the city sent Landry's a nuisance abatement notice in July, city Planning Director Wendy O'Donohoe said. The city had already asked Landry's to fence off the hotel to keep trespassers out, O'Donohoe said. The letter asked Landry's, run by Houston businessman Tilman Fertitta, to attend to debris on the pier and rooms being open to the elements, among other code violations, she said.
Landry's has shown its intention to correct the problem and is working with the city, O'Donohoe said, although it has yet to offer a date for work to begin.
Getting work started on the Flagship is turning out to be a headache, said Jeff Cantwell, Landry's senior vice president for development. He said Landry's officials understand that the decaying hotel is a blight. "We agree, and we want something done with it as well," Cantwell said.
Earlier this year Landry's said it was going to demolish the hotel and use the pier for a purpose officials declined to reveal. The hotel still might be demolished, but it's one of several possibilities Landry's officials are looking at, including selling it.
Cantwell said they have since begun looking at the possibility of repairing the hotel. "What happened is upon further investigation (we decided) it might make economic sense to renovate the hotel," he said.
Getting that done depends on retaining permission from the General Land Office to operate a structure over the Gulf and finding out whether renovation can be completed without adhering to tougher building codes put in place since the Flagship was built in 1965.
"There are lots of obstacles and hurdles," Cantwell said.
Landry's plans for the Flagship are scaled back from the vision unveiled after the company paid the city $500,000 for the hotel in 2004. The firm then made public drawings showing a hotel coupled with an amusement pier.
"We are not contemplating any of that stuff that was originally considered," Cantwell said.
Only one project likely
If Landry's decides to keep the pier, it will likely have only one project, for example either a remodeled hotel or an amusement pier.
"We would like for it to be as soon as possible," Cantwell said about a final decision. "A lot of things are out of our control."
Not everyone necessarily wants to see the hotel repaired, Gaskins said. There are a few disaster tourists attracted to the wrecked hotel, she said.
Galveston Chamber of Commerce President Gina Spagnola said she gets calls every week about the Flagship, many from visitors who were married at the hotel or spent their honeymoon there. "It's a very beloved place," Spagnola said. "I think people hope that something gets done."
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