Editor's note: This article appears courtesy of Josh Taylor Souza with our content partner, The City Wire.
A bustling scene of heavy machinery and a cloud of dust surrounds a massive 15-floor structure in downtown Fayetteville. It's the site of the Chancellor Hotel, where a herd of more than 50 construction workers are racing against the clock to pull off a massive $15 million face-lift that will restore the city’s most luxurious hotel in time for a September 14 grand opening.
Even from the outside-looking-in, it’s hard not to notice the transformation of the building which overlooks the neighboring lots like a sleeping giant ready to be unleashed on the public. The building itself is more than 30 years old and has gone through several name and managerial changes, but it has never undergone an overhaul quite like this, said Kevin Thompson, project manager for Dawn Properties and owners Ike Thrash and Sam Alley.
The hotel has been home to a Hilton, a Radisson and a Cosmopolitan since its completion in 1981 and saw its share of highs and lows. General Manager Alex Jerde was present for both, overseeing the success of the mid 1990’s to the demise and eventual foreclosure of the property in 2010.
“When I started managing here in the 1990’s we had about 156 employees and a fully operational hotel with 15 floors and a restaurant. By the end I had just 36 people on my staff,” Jerde said Monday (July 23.).
“We had to close six floors which took us down to 90 rooms. It is almost impossible to break even when you’re faced with those kinds of numbers,” Jerde added.
He said it was sad to watch the business decline the way it did after 2009 when financing dried up for the former owners Richard Alexander and John Nock.
“Even when business was booming there were little problems with the building that needed to be addressed. The city has seen this place go through some changes but nothing this drastic. I don’t think some people will believe it until they see it with their own eyes, but I think this place is in even better shape than when it was originally opened,” Jerde said.
Thrash said last week that it’s exciting to see the project in the 11th hour and he’s pleased with 90% or so completion with nearly eight weeks until opening day.
Over the last nine months, Thompson and his crew have been putting in 10-hour days to bring the Chancellor to life. It’s more than just a face-lift, the 30 year old structure has been injected with a youthful new plumbing system and a first-floor restaurant that should draw in foot traffic from the local business community. Though most of the furniture is still in plastic wrap and the pool is void of water, the building is starting to resemble a four-star quality inn, unlike anything the city has to offer.
“Our biggest hurdle to get over was the plumbing because these pipes were original and had to be brought up to proper code,” Thompson said. “It would take nearly five minutes to get hot water on the top floors before, but now we get it in about five seconds.”
When the doors open in mid-September, the Chancellor will feature 200 rooms, including 16 suites, two ball-rooms with built-in dance floors, two conference rooms complete with video projectors, a full-scale first-floor restaurant/bar and an indoor/outdoor salt water pool.
Thompson’s crew has made an effort to use environmentally friendly light fixtures and cast stone tiles for the deck of the pool area. An on-site parking deck will be available to guests, as well as a valet parking option.
The hotel opening will be the same weekend that defending national football champion Alabama comes to town. According to Jerde, the Chancellor is already booked for the weekend, as Razorback fans are already clamoring for a high-class, affordable hotel to hang their hog-hats.
The hotel rooms are decorated in a modern style, fea
turing over-sized walk-in showers with dark-grey tile floors and balconies on the upper-floors that almost put the room guests on eye-level with the surrounding Boston Mountains and stunning views in all directions.
The poshest suite available carries the hotel’s namesake — The Chancellor — featuring 1,800 square feet with two adjoining rooms, two baths, a bar and a balcony on the 16th floor. The hotel has 15 floors, but floor 13 was skipped and renamed 14, a common practice in the hotel business, according to Thompson.
Slightly smaller suites dubbed Old Main, Ozark and the Presidential also offer amazing views with spacious layouts and step-out balconies.
Marilyn Heifner, executive director with Fayetteville Visitors and Convention Bureau, is counting down the days to opening.
“It’s been too long since Fayetteville had a full-service hotel downtown. One that can accommodate conventions and large groups. I can’t wait to see the hotel busy again because we’ve had to limp along for several years while the venue was in a state of limbo,” Heifner said.
Thrash, of Hattiesburg, Miss., is no stranger to the hospitality business. His firm purchased and renovated the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Biloxi a few years ago, but he was just one of the serious suitors to pursue the Cosmopolitan early last year.
Sam Alley of Little Rock knows a thing or two about Fayetteville and the hotel business. Alley, whose family owns Dallas-based Bedrock Commercial Partners, is a University of Arkansas graduate and his construction firm, VCC, built the Westin Hotel at Galleria in Dallas.
Thrash said they were both bidding on the property and eventually decided to do the deal together.
“We are happy to see this project moving ahead on schedule,” Thrash said.
In 2006, local real estate partners John Nock and Richard Alexander borrowed $16.2 million to acquire the hotel then operating as the Cosmopolitan at the height of the real estate market.
Plans called for a total renovation which began in 2007 but was cut short in May 2008 when the financing bank — ANB National — failed. At that time the loan had a collectable balance of $12.5 million and was sold to Kingston Management Services.
For the next two years, Kingston operated the hotel in receivership until foreclosing in 2010. The repurchase price at foreclosure auction was $6 million.
Kingston spent more than a year trying to secure another buyer who had the means to complete the extensive renovations left half undone.
Jerde said Monday, several prospective buyers toured the facility but the extent of needed renovation was massive and it took owners with hospitality experience and construction ties to see the true possibility this venue offered at the “right price.”
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be a beautiful space but rents are somewhat limited for much of the year given that it’s located in Fayetteville, not Manhattan or downtown Chicago. I am looking so forward to managing this hotel — all 15 floors and 200-plus rooms,” Jerde said.
1978 Construction began on the original hotel.
1981 Hotel opens under the Hilton brand.
1992 Fayetteville Hotel Ventures bought the property for $3 million.
2001 The name was changed from Hilton to Radisson.
2006 Hotel was purchased by Cosmopolitan Ventures who borrowed $16.2 million for project.
2007 Renovation began on the hotel.
2008 ANB Financial the lending bank failed and financing evaporated, halting the renovation.
2010 The hotel falls into receivership as FDIC forecloses. Bought at auction for $6 million and nearly closes twice for unpaid taxes.
2011 In September the hotel was sold for $3.8 million to Ike Thrash and Sam Alley.
2012 Hotel closes and complete renovation gets under way with expected grand opening planned for Sept. 14, 2012.