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Better for a year than for good

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The revelation that the Hotel Pere Marquette will be closed for up to a year during renovations has many people concerned about what that will mean for local conventions and tourism.

The immediate future will be affected, of course, because of events already scheduled for the Pere Marquette and for the Peoria Civic Center. That will be 284 downtown rooms taken off the market for a while.

Some, however, say that could mean a loss of business beyond the next year, that if some of those events are forced to look elsewhere they may not come back.

My thought is, consider the alternative. It's better that the Pere be closed for up to a year, then reopen as a still-grand yet stylishly modern hotel, than for it to be closed permanently without a buyer in sight.

That, in my opinion, is what would have happened had the deal for the Pere Marquette renovation and construction of a new, adjacent Marriott Courtyard been killed.

Already the hotel was in foreclosure, with the Kansas-based owners blaming that on the delays in getting the hotel sold. Why that prevented the owners from making payments on the existing mortgage is beyond me. I can understand not wanting to sink more money into rooms or lobbies or whatever since it was about to be sold, but to stop paying paying the mortgage?

That makes me wonder if they were having difficulty making payments anyway, so I'm not sure how much longer the hotel would have survived had EM Properties not made the renovation and construction proposal. The current owners poured millions into the building just a few years ago but much of it was for cosmetic improvements. There were other things that still needed to be done, things that went deeper than looks.

Further, even if the Pere Marquette could stay open without the new construction — thus without the skywalk connecting it to the Civic Center — that would not help the Civic Center book the large conventions that its recent $55 million expansion was meant to accomplish. Most large convention organizers were quite clear in telling local convention and tourism officials that without a connected hotel they weren't interested in Peoria.

Those same convention organizers, which book their events years in advance, also told local officials that when the first spade of dirt on the new project is turned, signaling construction has started, to give them a call. So looking long-term, the project should pay off even if groups are inconvenienced for a year.

So, why can't the hotel remain open during the renovations? Because of safety reasons, said developer Gary Matthews, president of EM Properties, during the news conference Wednesday when it was revealed the hotel would have to close. (By the way, Matthews had no intention of letting those plans become public before Pere Marquette staff was told, but he was asked about it at the news conference and decided to answer rather than put off the question.)

Alicia Ruemelin, head of marketing and media relations for EM Properties, said the decision to close the hotel during renovations was a difficult one because of the adverse affects on hotel staff and events already scheduled, but many factors were considered and the company feels it has to do it "for the life safety and welfare of the staff and guests during the construction."

Much of the hotel will be gutted and the developer intends to install all new mechanical systems — including electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning — throughout the building. There will be long stretches when all the utilities will have to be shut off. Can you imagine what it would take to rewire a building that size?

"Originally we had plans to keep the hotel open during the renovation and construction, but as our planning evolved it became evident it would not be safe for staff or guests to be inside the building while it was going on. So, our plans had to change. The logistics of everything were too difficult to plan otherwise," Ruemelin said. "We also don't think guests would even want to be in a hotel where they would have to walk through or around construction areas and materials."

Now, she added, EM Properties is finalizing a business plan to transfer all current Pere Marquette reservations and events to other facilities in the city to accommodate those affected. "We will work with other entities to try and minimize the inconvenience this will cause," she said.

There is no date set yet for the closure and it will not happen before the end of the year.

For one thing, the City Council still has to approve the new redevelopment agreement between the city and EM Properties. Also, Matthews has to close on the Pere Marquette acquisition and financing plans no later than Jan. 31, 2012.

If all that happens, convention and tourism planners should take comfort in knowing the hotel will reopen and in about a year after that the new Marriott tower will be finished, with 116 new rooms on the market. Both will be connected to the Civic Center.

I'd venture a guess that most of the business lost because of the construction will want to come back.

Paul Gordon is editor of The Peoria. He can be reached at 692-7880 or editor@thepeorian.com.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).