URBANA — Xiao Jin Yuan said he took on the challenge of renovating the Urbana Landmark Hotel partly because he was a bit "bored" with his already established hotel in Crescent City, Calif.
Yuan said he was intrigued with the idea of refurbishing the former hotel, built in 1924, and the tradition it represented in downtown Urbana.
"I like this old style," he said, comparing it with vintage buildings he saw in England.
But it wasn't a given that he would buy the Urbana hotel, located at 210 S. Race St.
Marine Bank of Springfield, which held title to the building, was asking $1.1 million for the property, and it was halfway across the nation from Yuan's home in Brookings, Ore., just across the California-Oregon border.
"It was so far away," he said of the Urbana hotel. "There were too many unpredictables."
But he told himself, "if they come down to $500,000, I will gamble on it" — provided the city of Urbana gives money toward renovation.
After eight months, he said, the bank dropped the price to $600,000, and the city made commitments that could provide Yuan with up to $1.4 million for the project.
Renovations have taken longer than expected, and Yuan's wife, Ching Mui Wong, has not yet moved to Illinois.
Yuan said he thinks she'll like the academic flavor of Champaign-Urbana. "But I have to get the business going better" before she comes here, he said.
In the meantime, she's managing the Oceanfront Lodge in Crescent City, the hotel Yuan built about 12 years ago. The hotel, which was initially a Hampton Inn, is on the Pacific Coast.
Yuan said he will not seek a franchise affiliation for the Urbana hotel. Some franchise brands force franchisees to buy certain products and "conform to ridiculous standards," he said.
"That's not the American spirit," he said.
Yuan said he plans to market the Urbana hotel through a website and possibly through promotional arrangements with an airline that would give guests free points. He may also use billboards to promote the hotel.
Yuan said he hopes to get business from Chinese students and their parents and also hopes to attract business travelers. He said he speaks Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and that should help.
Yuan said he expects to employ about 20 people when the hotel first opens. Once the bar and restaurant open and the hotel is operating at full scale, the number should grow to the 70 to 80 range.
At the beginning, he may transfer a few employees from California to work at the Urbana Landmark.
"It's a challenge to hire the right people," he said.
He added he doesn't want to be the day-to-day manager, noting, "I can't run it as efficiently as my wife."
Yuan, 54, said he was born in Nanking, China. Before World War II, his family owned properties with more than 100 rooms in Nanking. When the Japanese occupied China, those properties were confiscated. Some of his relatives were killed by the Japanese, he said, and his immediate family fled Nanking.
After the war, his family returned to the city and reclaimed their property. But when the Communists came to power in 1948, the property was once again seized. His father, who had been in banking, was sent to a labor camp for 15 years.
Later, his father was assigned to teach math and then to work as a bookkeeper for the government.
During the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, his father was again sent to a labor camp, and Yuan's older brothers were sent into the countryside to work as peasant farmers.
Yuan, still a child, stayed in the city. After reformist leader Deng Xiaoping expanded ties with the West, Yuan went to Nanking University and studied English language and British literature.
His father advised him to leave China when he graduated from college, and he did, going to Hong Kong. Initially, he worked as a salesman there, but then he joined DMT International, where he worked as a commodity trader.
Yuan called that a "heart-attack business," so at age 40, he quit the business and went to California to open his first hotel.
Land in Crescent City was affordable, he said, and the municipal government was willing to work with him.
He and his wife have two sons — one a college graduate, the other still in college — and a 13-year-old daughter.