Jim Dey: Redeveloping Urbana hotel is hard-hitting business
At 5 feet 7 inches tall with a slight build, 52-year-old Xiao Jin "X.J." Yuan doesn't look like a political football.
But one couldn't tell that from the recent Democratic Party primary election in Urbana in which rival candidates kicked around the wisdom of the city's role in helping Yuan renovate the old Urbana Lincoln Hotel at Lincoln Square.
Incumbent Mayor Laurel Prussing defended the city's decision to back Yuan's investment in the hotel, which has been renamed the Urbana Landmark Hotel. She said using money from the city's tax increment financing district fund is a good investment because the city has a strong interest in seeing the downtown flourish, the property tax base restored and new jobs created.
Prussing's Democratic opponent, Les Stratton, challenged the wisdom of the city's $1.4 million pledge and argued that Yuan is not in compliance with the city's original loan agreement. Prussing handily won the primary election, but it would be no surprise if Republican challenger Rex Bradfield has similar criticism in the run-up to the April 9 general election.
What did Yuan think about it?
"I didn't pay much attention," he said, while emphasizing that "I have nothing to do with politics."
But Yuan did say that "if anybody thinks I got too good a deal, they can buy me out."
Born in Nanking, China, Yuan came to his current occupation as a hotel owner and developer in a roundabout way.
He and members of his family lived in an impoverished communist country and learned through bitter experience that they'd have to work hard to survive.
"We grew up in political turmoil. There was no guarantee I would have a meal to eat the next day," he recalled.
Determined to make something of himself, Yuan and his wife moved in 1985 to Hong Kong, where he worked in the commodities business for 12 years. He described it as lucrative but draining, "a nerve-wracking, heart attack business."
Ultimately, Yuan moved to the United States, where he entered the hotel business in Crescent City, Calif. He said many predicted he would lose his shirt with his plan to build a waterfront hotel in the low-population Redwood country of northern California. But he said he was confident the beautiful view the Oceanfront Lodge provided would draw boatloads of tourists.
He proved to be correct and jokes that "currently I'm using that hotel's (profits) to put in here."
There is no doubt that Yuan took on a big job when he decided, with the city's promise of support, to buy the downtown Urbana hotel attached to Lincoln Square. He noted that it had been closed for three years and had fallen into such disrepair that homeless people had broken in and were using it for shelter.
"There must be a reason (for its past failures)," he said. "If everybody thought it was going to work, it wouldn't have fallen into my hands."
Still, Yuan said, he conceived of a plan under which the hotel could be restored to its original splendor and operate on a profitable basis. The city's pledge of $1.4 million in loans, which will be forgiven once the hotel has been in full operation for two years, was part of the equation. So was his purchase price of $600,000 — well below the asking price of $1.1 million.
He noted the city had an incentive to underwrite the hotel's redevelopment because if it continued to deteriorate, demolition costs would have been "far more than $1.4 million" and all Urbana would have got out of it was "a large vacant lot."
Instead, much renovation has been completed while there is much more to do.
Renovations include a new roof and construction of a canopy area in front of the hotel. He said remodeling of the hotel bar is near completion, awaiting only "the health department to give us the OK" to open and that the once-covered hardwood floor in the ballroom has been restored.
Yuan said he expects the hotel's restaurant to open and renovation of the rooms on the third and fourth floors to be finished by this summer.
The hotel is partially open — 45 rooms. On Wednesday, Yuan estimated occupancy to be about 30 percent but said on some weekends he's had more requests for rooms than rooms to provide.
The hotel will feature 128 rooms when work is complete. He said the ballroom has been booked for "18 to 20" weddings.
Yuan said he has had to spend more money than he originally planned, but that goes with the territory in construction/renovation work.
"Everything is more expensive than you expect. You just have to tolerate it and keep spending more money," he said, noting that it is his nature to solve problems and blame no one but himself if things go wrong.
Despite the setbacks he's encountered, Yuan said he considers the hotel to be a "good investment." But he said he underestimated how difficult it would be to spend time away from his family in California.
That's why he said if he had a chance to do it over, he would not have bought the hotel.
"What's the point of making money if I have to be away from my family?" he said.
Still, Yuan is committed, saying that he has to "be responsive to public opinion and to the city."
But there's a limit, he said.
"I just try to get things done. I have nothing to do with politics," Yuan said.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.