As costly restoration drags on, city officials' patience wears thin
URBANA — City council members run the spectrum on what to do with the Urbana Landmark Hotel as a restoration that cost the city $1.45 million has extended well beyond what they expected.
Patience grew thin enough for Alderman Eric Jakobsson, D-Ward 2, that he sent an email on Sunday to other council members and city officials suggesting that the hotel owner be pressured to bring in "competent onsite management, which is clearly not there now."
Other elected officials have said recently that they want to continue working with owner Xiao Jin Yuan, and at least one holds the opinion that city administrators should start looking to recover the city's investment and find a new owner.
But what most of them have in common — four years after Yuan bought the property and city officials promised $1.45 million for the renovation — is that the work has taken too long and something needs to be done.
Jakobsson's suggestion that the city press Yuan to hire a management and marketing team was prompted by research he said he did on Sunday after reading The News-Gazette story about the dragging project. He found that he could not book rooms at the Landmark Hotel on popular travel websites, and many hotels have much better reviews and lower rates.
On TripAdvisor.com, the hotel has 15 user reviews: seven guests thought the hotel was "excellent" or "very good," but eight thought it was "poor" or "terrible." That ranks it as No. 13 out of 15 Urbana hotels (ahead only of the Super 8 Urbana and the Hanford Inn and Suites, which was closed and condemned by the city in 2010 after inspectors found fire code violations — it has since sat empty and abandoned).
Six reviewers on Yelp.com gave the hotel an average three out of five stars. And 20 reviewers on Hotels.com gave it an average 2.5 rating out of five possible points.
But Alderman Dennis Roberts last week pointed out that dozens of people recently stayed at the hotel for the Illinois Sister Cities convention in April, and he did not hear any complaints about the rooms or service.
The "85 participants of the conference greatly enjoyed the unique quality of the hotel," Roberts said.
"Since then, (the hotel) has hosted a tango dance party and other events and will be hosting for the second time the Folk and Roots Festival coming up in November."
Mayor Laurel Prussing stood behind the effort, too. While acknowledging that the project is taking longer than expected, she pointed out that the owner is making incremental progress and "we're going to just work things out and see what we can do."
"I think if you look at it, it looks really nice," she said.
Jakobsson said he previously had concerns but was "just shocked" to find he could not book a room through those travel websites.
"I had been concerned about the apparent vacancy rate," he said. "Every time I've gone by there, the parking lot is apparently empty."
He thinks that lack of online availability is something a professional manager would be tending to, and "the most immediate problem is the management."
"I want to get (the hotel) upgraded, completed and so forth," Jakobsson said. "But none of that is going to do any good if it's not well-managed."
Alderman Charlie Smyth, D-Ward 1, had a lot of the same concerns.
"My disappointment is that we're not at a boutique hotel status yet," Smyth said. "For me, the success of the Landmark Hotel is to get it to boutique hotel status so it's known that way nationally. It needs to be marketed that way nationally."
That's what city officials were promised at the outset when Yuan bought the property in 2010, Smyth said, and city officials need to continue to "hold his feet to the fire."
"The only way he's going to be capable is if he brings in a management team that knows how to do a boutique hotel and he listens to them," Smyth said.
Yuan said last week that unexpected issues have plagued the renovation and slowed him down — it's a 90-year-old building, after all. More than $1 million that the city has already handed to him for the renovation is classified as a loan which will be forgiven once the hotel is fully open to the public for two years.
The clock on that two years has yet to begin before the final wing of rooms and the hotel conference center are completed and opened, which Yuan said will happen by the end of this year.
The "upside" to that, said Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7, is that the city assistance went toward reimbursing the renovation costs, which means the money stays in the hotel itself even if the owner walks away.
"The bones are good, but you just have to have the vision and put the necessary resources into it," Marlin said.
But her patience has run completely dry with Yuan.
"I am to the point where I think it would be best for all involved if we found a new owner and took steps to recover the taxpayer dollars invested in it," Marlin said.
She points out that she voted for the incentive agreement twice — initially, after Yuan bought the hotel, and again after the opening date was pushed back the first time and the contract was restructured. She said she was willing to give it a shot, but she thinks it is time that city officials say the terms of that agreement have not been met.
"I really do believe a hotel in that area — or a hotel, apartments, or condos or something — would be viable because of its location downtown and its proximity to the university," Marlin said. "So I really do think it's a viable option."
But she says this phase of the project has run its course, and she is no longer accepting the reasoning that the delays are caused by an old, unpredictable building.
"That argument was OK the first couple of years, but it's been four years," Marlin said. "I don't buy it anymore."
The same goes for Smyth.
"I understand it's an old building," he said. "It's complicated, but enough's enough."