Hotel Plan Touted As Job Maker

Developer Says Complex Would Employ 60 Full Time

Posted: September 14, 2012

HARRISONBURG — A downtown hotel and conference center would create 60 full-time, permanent jobs, according to a plan submitted to the city.

On Tuesday, Harrisonburg City Council accepted the basic concept of the proposal from dpM Partners of Gaithersburg, Md., and opened up the process to other developers. Since dpM approached the city unsolicited through the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act, the local government must seek other bids before taking further action.

The bid process for other offers is open until Nov. 13. Council’s approval of the concept did not commit the city to the project, and members were cautious Tuesday about the funding involved.

In the proposal, construction of the 18,180-square-foot conference center would require $9.57 million in bonds issued by the city, while the rest of the $39.9 million project, including all hotel costs, would be privately financed. A restaurant would be included in the hotel, which would have 205 rooms.

In addition to the 60 permanent jobs that developers say would be created once the complex opens, the construction phase of the project would lead to another 100 temporary positions.

A location for the center has not been selected, but developers seek an area “within walking distance of Main Street.” In a phone interview, Paul Gladd, CEO of dpM, said developers are in “advanced discussions” to acquire a site.

According to the proposal, dpM predicts that tax revenues will exceed the city’s financial commitment, leaving Harrisonburg with no economic risk. Detailed revenue projections would not be released until later in the process, however, and a third-party feasibility study would be conducted before council makes a final decision.

Even before the study, though, council could choose not to proceed at all.

The conference center, as planned, could accommodate meetings of up to 500 people, Gladd said, and regularly serve local businesses, such as Rosetta Stone. He also expects it would receive a lot of use on the weekends for such social events as wedding receptions.

“I just always liked the location of Harrisonburg, in the center of the Valley,” said Gladd, a 1987 graduate of James Madison University. “The Shenandoah Valley has needed a facility to attract and get in the rotation [for trade groups].”

DpM worked on the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center in Staunton, as well as the Newport News Marriott at City Center. For Harrisonburg, the hotel and conference center must be packaged to maximize the use of both, Gladd said.

“If you separate the two,” he said, “usually bad things happen.”

Brian Shull, the city’s economic development director, told council on Tuesday that the city has added four hotels in the last decade. None required city funding.

With, Not Against, JMU

The primary spot for large conferences and receptions in the area is JMU’s Festival Conference and Student Center, which has numerous rooms to accommodate groups of various sizes. The festival center turned down 450 medium- and large-group requests in the past year, university spokesman Don Egle said.

Shull said the proposed downtown conference center would be twice the size of JMU’s grand ballroom.

According to the proposal, JMU would consider a room-block commitment to assure that visitors stay in the downtown hotel. Plus, the complex could partner with the school’s hospitality program, Gladd said.

Councilman Charles Chenault said the city must be sure it is not harming existing privately owned restaurants and hotels if the conference center becomes reality. But officials working on the project said it would boost business, and they note that revitalization group Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance has long eyed such a project.

Among the firms included on the proposal is Mather Architects of Penn Laird. President John Mather said the benefits of a hotel and conference center are “immense.”

“It will do more to make us into a full-fledged city that’s on the map in Virginia,” he said. “Harrisonburg’s always been a big town, small city. …  It would become more of a major player in terms of activity in the state.”

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com