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March 08--PEORIA -- After all the blaring headlines, executive City Council sessions and unsettling court decisions, you'd expect hotels in receivership like the Marriott Pere Marquette and adjoining Courtyard by Marriott to be boarded-up and buried in doubt.

On the contrary, things are bustling at both Downtown hotels that go on the auction block March 19. With the first weekend of March Madness approaching, it's just like old times with staff busily preparing for the arrival of high school teams, Illinois High School Association staff and media from around the state.

"We see a light at the end of the tunnel," said Jeff McLinden, managing director at the hotel complex, referring to new ownership and stability that the auction could bring. It's a tunnel that stretches back to December 2016, when financing problems at the hotel first became known.

Since then the revamped Pere Marquette, rechristened a Marriott property in 2013 after extensive remodeling, has been mired in money problems due to the failure of owner Gary Matthews to pay his bills.

That failure is likely to cost the city of Peoria over $7 million, a loan the city made to Matthews as part of the development agreement, but McLinden is confident that INDURE Build-to-Core Fund, the union pension fund that provided primary financing for the hotel project, will secure ownership of the hotel properties at the auction.

While INDURE is expected to take over, there may be other bidders at the auction, said McLinden.

For the city to be reimbursed the auction price would have to exceed $42 million, said City Manager Patrick Urich. However, the auction bid to secure the properties is likely to be closer to $33.9 million, said Bob Howard, the area Realtor named receiver by the court, at a Friday news conference at the Pere Marquette.

McLinden credits Howard with helping bring order to a difficult situation. "In two weeks, Bob has done more than anyone has done in a year. He's been a breath of fresh air," he said.

"Morale has been up since he walked in the door," said McLinden, admitting he had his doubts when a receiver for the hotels was first named.

"We were worried at first. Who is this new guy, we wondered? But once he got his arms around it, he had a checklist, all related to financial plans for the hotels," he said.

One of the first things that's helped hotel morale has been Marriott's recent decision to return the Peoria hotels to its national online reservation system.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in reservations. We've seen more than a 50 percent increase in business in just a week," said McLinden.

"Before, we just didn't show up on Marriott's system. People (checking online) didn't even know we were here," he said.

Shut out of the Marriott reservation system for all of 2017 took its toll on business at the two hotels' 402 rooms, said McLinden, noting that belt-tightening at the complex started in mid-2016 with workers cross-trained to handle a variety of tasks.

A hotel staff of 175 was trimmed to 150, he said, adding that personnel are now being hired back.

Brittany Guppy, the chief engineer for the hotels, exemplified the resilience that employees have shown while working under the cloud of doubt surrounding the hotels, said McLinden.

The chief engineer wears many hats, fixing air conditioners along with dealing with anything from plumbing problems to faulty TV sets, he said.

Guppy, who joined the hotel staff in 2013, said the last couple of years have been challenging. "Things got tight when it came to equipment. My staff was cut. I had to work more hours, sometimes coming in in the middle of the night," she said.

Like McLinden, she looks for better things in the future.

Daryll Smith, Courtyard GM and AGM for the hotel complex with 40 years of hotel management experience, said he's seen hotels struggle before. He said that Peoria's Courtyard -- before problems started -- had consistently ranked in the top 10 percent of Courtyards nationally when it came to business.

"It'll take awhile to get back to that, but business is picking up every day," said Smith.

Don Welch, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, lauded hotel employees "who've been through a lot" at Friday's news conference while calling the Pere Marquette and Courtyard "critical" and "so important to the Peoria economy."

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 and starter@pjstar.com. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.

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