Three new hotels add 300 rooms to local market

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 24, 2013 

Three new hotels, in various stages of preparation, construction and completion, will add nearly 300 rooms to the Columbus-Phenix City market.

Coming first to the market will be a Hampton Inn near the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center. That will be followed by a Candlewood Suites at Columbus Park Crossing and a Courtyard Marriott in downtown Phenix City.

"We're right here at the finish line," said Batson-Cook project manager Travis Evans of the 102-room Hampton Inn Columbus/South Fort Benning, 1776 Legacy Way, which is moving toward a February opening.

The hotel, which West Point, Ga.-based general contractor Batson-Cook has been working on for a year, is located near the museum on the edge of Fort Benning. Its customer base looks to include out-of-town museum visitors and those coming for military reunions, as well as families attending training graduations at the post.

The Hampton Inn's pool deck was poured a few days ago and the flooring and wallpaper are being installed, while landscaping also is under way.

"Then we'll probably be down to testing the generator and the elevators, and trying to get some inspections complete," said Evans, who hopes to turn over the property to Columbus-based Valley Hospitality by the end of this week.

Valley Hospitality, a hotel and food management company, is owned by Jack Pezold, the area's McDonald's restaurant franchise operator.

The company's local properties include the downtown Marriott, a Hampton Inn and DoubleTree in north Columbus, the Econo Lodge near Fort Benning, and the Howard Johnson Inn downtown. It also operates the city's two Houlihan's restaurants, the Fife and Drum eatery inside the Infantry Museum, and The Cannon Brew Pub on Broadway.

As the Hampton Inn gets settled in this spring, an 83-room Candlewood Suites will be headed toward completion this summer, likely in July or August, said Anil Patel, the majority owner of the property at 6611 Whittlesey Blvd., next to the new Kia Autosport dealership at Columbus Park Crossing.

"It's good for extended stays, people who are going to stay at least three to four days," said Anil Patel, pointing out the hotel's close proximity to the popular shopping and dining area and its location just off J.R. Allen Parkway (U.S. Highway 80).

Anil Patel, whose company is called Jina Inc., said he also is a minority partner in the Staybridge Suites and Hyatt Place hotels in Columbus. He was hoping to get started on the Candlewood Suites three years ago, but had to work through a finance issue. He thinks now is the right time for the new property.

"I know last year was a little bit slow compared to the previous year," he said of the Columbus hotel market. "But as long as Fort Benning keeps going, we should not have a problem."

Rinkesh Patel, who is in charge of hotel operations and development for Columbus-based Ram Hotels, would likely agree with the potential for serving military-related personnel. But he also is banking on a good number of Chattahoochee River rafting and kayaking enthusiasts staying at his planned 100-room Courtyard Marriott in downtown Phenix City.

The attraction is a 2.5-mile urban whitewater course that studies have estimated will draw 144,000 out-of-town participants to the city each year. The hotel also will be adjacent to the planned Troy University campus.

"We want it to be an iconic landmark for years to come. So we're enhancing it to an upper-end hotel," Rinkesh Patel said.

Rinkesh Patel said he expects to close on financing for the Courtyard Marriott soon, then put it on a "fast track" for groundbreaking the third week of February. The schedule calls for the $12 million hotel to open by the second quarter of 2014. It should have 32 full-time employees and eight part-timers, he said.

Rinkesh Patel said he also would have preferred to have his project under way sooner.

"This would have happened a lot earlier if it wasn't for the economy being stagnant," he said. "But now is the time. This is a window of opportunity and we're all ready to capitalize on it."

Ram Hotels already operates the Hampton Inn & Suites and Days Inn in Phenix City, as well as a Hampton Inn & Suites and Holiday Inn Express in Lanett, Ala. In Columbus, it has the recently opened Home2 Suites by Hilton on Whittlesey Boulevard, a Country Inn & Suites on Rollins Way, Microtel Inn & Suites on Fountain Court and the Econo Lodge on Veterans Parkway.

With the three new properties, Columbus and Phenix City will have roughly 5,400 hotel rooms. That includes nearly 4,900 in Columbus and an estimated 500 in Phenix City.

The city has absorbed many new properties and brands in recent years. Aside from Home2 Suites, Candlewood Suites, Staybridge Suites and Hyatt Place, others include Homewood Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, SpringHill Suites, Residence Inn, Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Wyndham Garden, Doubletree, Home-Towne Suites, TownePlace Suites, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Suburban Extended Stay, Value Place and Extended Stay America.

Even with the surge of hotels into the market, the city should be able to fill them, particularly with the whitewater course becoming reality this summer, said Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We've got some real aggressive strategies that we're putting into place, and whitewater is going to be a real strong contender," he said.

Still, there's work to do. Year-to-date hotel occupancy is at just over 57 percent, Bowden said. The average daily rate per room is $73.39.

Those statistics rub up against a U.S. military in downsizing mode at Fort Benning. The post confirmed Wednesday that its Infantry and Armor schools trained 37,800 fewer soldiers in federal fiscal year 2012, which ended in September.

"We were tracking a 29 percent decrease in the (visitor) number representing graduations," Bowden said. "That's why we've gotten very aggressive in replacing it with what we're calling niche markets."

That would include trying to draw more family reunions and military-related gatherings, as well as "outside"-oriented activities such as running groups and marathoners. The hope in the latter category is to attract more people from other Southeastern states, in essence making the already-popular recreational events even bigger.

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