|By Kevin Duchschere, Star Tribune
(Minneapolis)McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 12, 2013--Rarely is an announcement about a hotel deal accompanied by an invocation in Ojibwe and ceremonial drum music, but then, the Mille Lacs Band is not a typical hotel owner. At least not yet.
On Monday, tribal leaders formally announced they had closed on the purchase of two of downtown St. Paul's largest hotels, the Crowne Plaza Riverfront and the DoubleTree by Hilton, for an undisclosed amount of money. The band took charge of the hotels Thursday.
"Hello, St. Paul!" said Joseph Nayquonabe Jr., CEO and chairman of the board for the band's economic development corporation, making the announcement at the Crowne Plaza's Great River Ballroom.
"The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is checking into downtown, and we plan on being here for a while." He said that St. Paul was just the first step in a long-term strategy to diversify the band's investments beyond gambling, the industry the band has pursued with success since building the first Grand Casino on Lake Mille Lacs near Garrison 22 years ago.
That's why, he said, there are no plans now or in the future to build a casino in connection with the St. Paul hotels.
"We're really excited about creating new revenue streams for the band, so that's really what this investment is all about," he said.
The Crowne Plaza and the DoubleTree, which together have more than 700 rooms -- nearly half the hotel rooms in the city -- will be managed by Graves Hospitality Corp., the Minneapolis-based company that operates the Graves 601 in downtown Minneapolis and is run by Ben Graves, son of hotel magnate Jim Graves.
Both hotels will get makeovers that include new "destination dining experiences" that cater to locals as well as visitors, they said.
The DoubleTree will get a new entrance on Minnesota Street, and the Crowne Plaze will be "transform[ed] ... both from the room side and from the public spaces," Nayquonabe said. He didn't put a price tag on the renovation work.
The band also is looking at possibly rebranding the hotels to drive more convention business to St. Paul, he said.
Melanie Benjamin, the band's chief executive, said the band had been looking for a business that could build on its experience running its two Grand Casinos, their affiliated hotels and other businesses that include a lake resort.
"We intend to be good business people, good neighbors and good citizens. ... Together we hope to create jobs, tax revenue for the city, and most importantly for us, two truly great hotels," she said. The purchase won't take the hotels off the tax rolls. The band formed two limited-liability corporations to buy the hotels and will pay property taxes like any other business owner. Tribal officials said there were no plans to apply for tax-exempt trust status.
City leaders hailed the deal as a sign of revived interest in downtown investment building on upcoming attractions, such as the light-rail line and the Lowertown ballpark.
In a statement, Mayor Chris Coleman (who was out of town) said he was "thrilled" by the news.
"The band is looking for new, unique investment opportunities throughout the country and they chose to invest in St. Paul first. ... I look forward to what is to come with both properties," he said. Matt Kramer, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said the fact that the hotels were purchased by "fellow Minnesotans who know the market, know this area" was "incredibly good news for St. Paul."
Kirby Payne, president of HVS Motel Management consultants, said the upgraded hotels will help the city compete for convention business.
"The change of ownership, in itself, will not generate additional demand in St. Paul for room nights," Payne said. "However, their remodeling and improving of the hotels, along with the other things going on that are positive in St. Paul, will certainly generate additional interest."
Nayquonabe said that the band is looking at other possible properties in New York, Washington, San Antonio and Los Angeles, as well as in Minneapolis and the Bloomington strip near the Mall of America.
"We're thinking big, and that's really what drives us every day," he said.
Kevin Duchschere --651-222-2732
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