Editorial: The Inn on the Chester – The Case for a WC Hotel & Conference Center

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Over the past few years, the Chestertown Spy has been less than discreet in advocating for a medium-sized, high-quality hotel for Chestertown. At the same time, it has also encouraged Washington College to assume a leadership role in its development.  Part of this is tied to the Spy’s desire for a bright, prosperous future for the town it loves, but also because it’s the right time and circumstances for WC to do so.

For decades, some very hard realities (capital, financing, market analysis, revenue projections) have given pause for such a role to dozens of WC leaders going as far back as the Douglass Cater administration in the 1980s. For reasons that were rational and irrational, the numbers never seemed to work enough to move forward with such a plan. Nonetheless, that interest and passion for such a facility remains as strong now as it did thirty five years ago.

Why? Because the rewards of building a Chestertown hotel are so strikingly transparent. The ability to accommodate medium-sized conferences, weddings, family reunions, returning alumni, prospective students and their parents, visiting dignitaries, as well as business people calling on local manufacturers, marketing firms, and other service industries, not only makes such a thing economically viable, these guests bring with them sizable discretionary dollars for shopping, dining, and other services.

The Inn at Swarthmore

The Inn at Swarthmore

In the world of higher education, even with relatively smaller schools, this has been the rationale in investing in the hospitality market. Over the last decade, countless schools have taken the plunge with hotel facilities ranging from twenty to eighty rooms.  Denison, Swarthmore, Kenyon, Gettysburg, Oberlin, Sewanee and W&L are just the latest examples of this trend.

While many of these schools may have better market capacity, larger endowments, and wealthier donor/investor constituencies to work with, the truth is that many other schools do not. That would include Flagler College, College of the Ozarks, Savannah College of Art and Design, or Wells College in upper state New York.

It may be true on the face of it that Chestertown and Washington College have significant handicaps to overcome in finding a solid business plan, the Spy’s albeit modest research into the business of town-gown hotels strongly suggests that these are minor roadblocks that can be effectively removed through creative financial and strategic partnerships.

Oberlin College is a good example.

In Oberlin’s case, a liberal arts college located in rural Ohio about an hour’s drive from Cleveland, the school ultimately built a hotel with seventy guest rooms that features a restaurant focused on local food and modest conference center. Planned to be “the cornerstone of Oberlin’s Green Arts District,”the facility’s 105,000 square feet also houses the college’s admissions and development staff. That sounds like a textbook definition of mixed use.The total cost was close to $36 million.

The expenses of a Chestertown equivalent would be significantly lower than that figure. Chestertown’s sweet spot for rooms would be more in the order of forty rooms. With that factored in, as well as a more similar comparison with the recently built Inn at Swarthmore, which cost closer to $25 million.

While $25 million sounds better than $35 million, it still turns out to be a huge sum for a small college in a small town. So where does Washington College get that kind of capital?

The Hotel at Oberlin

The Hotel at Oberlin

In the case of Oberlin, almost 60% of the construction costs were financed. Secondly, the school created a naming opportunity for a leadership donation (in this case $5 million from an Oberlin alum) and finally a consortium of donors/investors/community supporters to close the gap.

Another smart thing that Oberlin did was to place non-academic divisions of the school in the new building rather than build separate facilities. In this case, as noted above, Oberlin decided to relocate the College’s external relations staff there in order to maximize contact with prospective students, alumni, and donors under the same roof.

With waterfront access, a similar model could be used in Chestertown for WC alumni and admissions centers.  Or, equally appealing, would be to create a center that would include the hotel and one of its three centers of excellence like its renowned Center for Society and the Environment. Those strategies would undoubtedly add to the cost of the project but would reduce costs in other parts of the College’s capital budget.

Using a working number of $25 million, it would be mean that $15 million would be financed, a major donor, given a strong case for support, should be able to be found at the $3-5 million naming opportunity level, and the balance would come from other donors, investors, possible alumni timeshare programs, as well as the room guarantee contracts with the region’s larger institutions, included the College, the local hospital, manufacturers like Dixon Valve, and other, smaller service providers, schools, and retailers, proportionate to their annual need and circumstances.

Another factor that would make this goal achievable would be a strong “All In” response from the Town of Chestertown and Kent County. A project of this magnitude needs the careful escort of these governments through permitting and regulatory issues. And the project needs grassroots support from town citizens as well.

In the final analysis, as local developer John Wilson so clearly articulated in his interview with the Spy this fall, every project like this needs a champion. While Washington College must take the lead, a Chestertown hotel will need hundreds of champions to make this happen.

Let us hope the will is there.

Wax

 

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. Kathi Donegan says:

    For what it’s worth, sign me up! I can see only good things come from this. We have a few notable Inns in the area, and what you speak of, can only enhance Kent County as a destination location.

  2. Margaret Krist says:

    As long as you build this hotel right next to town or near the river, it is a great idea. The more people and activity
    you can get into Chestertown the better. It sends a signal that the town is not dying and will encourage more folks
    to move there.

  3. Tom Steele says:

    What is the occupancy rate for the two hotels on the north side, outside of event weekends? I like the idea of a waterfront hotel run by the college, but the business case has to be solid.

  4. Linda Parry says:

    Brilliant idea, but do we have to consider a from-the-ground-up-brand-new building? We have so many talented architects and designers right here in Kent County. Couldn’t we think about adding onto a place such as Stepne Manor? And have the “new” architecture in keeping with the historic building already standing? A “new” addition would have to include current safety regulations, accommodations for those with handicaps, and modern heating and air conditioning – and it would be ideal to add a year-round restaurant. The location could still be used for weddings and various party-type events. I don’t know how much acreage is included with this location, but it appears there would be adequate space for parking – and maybe a swimming pool, if there isn’t one there already. In my opinion, Chestertown is ready for something like this – and it just seems easier to put what we have to good use, rather than starting from scratch.

  5. Marty Stetson says:

    This is what I said should be done when we had a chance to put the armory property on the open market, but the Council decided it should go to the college. Now that the college owns it I hope they are able to pull it off with the cavort that it goes on the tax rolls. It will not be used for education purpose but as a money maker for the college. It can certainly be done as a win-win endeavor for both the town and the college.

  6. Carla Massoni says:

    Brilliant!

  7. Debra Cannon says:

    I worked at the Wye River Conference Center in Wye Mills for years and it was way back on the river very private and beautiful and in working there we did business conferences for high level executives and retreats for team building with Outward Bound programs. All of the guest loved the secluded property where they could get up in the morning and run or walk and most of them are coming from the city and want something relaxing and private. We have a beautiful county with lots of places where they can feel remote and private and then only be about 10 minutes outside of town if they wanted to explore. I think this would be a great opportunity to bring some jobs to our area and it would also be a great thing for our small business owners. We did the Middle East peace talks there and they loved the privacy and how secluded they were so they could relax and enjoy the experience of it all. We also did alot of weddings and the grounds were perfect for it. This is a great opportunity for our county to grow.

  8. Jamie Kirkpatrick says:

    I’m a college counselor and have visited many select schools that have a “signature” inn. (Colgate, Dartmouth, Clemson, Amherst, and Allegheny come immediately to mind.) I think this is a terrific idea for the college and the town, an idea that would significantly enhance the profile of each and both. Moreover, there are lots of possible constituencies who would benefit. Let’s get this done!!

  9. Melinda Bookwalter says:

    Yea, all positive comments and better said than anything I could add! yes, go for it!

  10. Marty Stetson says:

    I hope the person who corrected my spelling could have realized I meant caveat. I think it is only fair that the college,( who got this piece of valuable property at a bargain rate,) pays taxes on the full value of the hotel-conference when constructed.

    • Cheryl Roberts says:

      AAbsolutely!

    • Larry Stahl says:

      …but we’re still going to allow people to cavort at this hotel, right?

    • John Seidel says:

      This is a straw horse, implying that the College would try to exempt itself from taxes on such a venture. The fact is that colleges DO pay real estate taxes on non-academic properties, and Washington College is no exception. At my last count, Washington College was paying taxes on something like 19 out of 39 parcels it owns. My numbers may be a bit off, but the point is the same.

  11. Joseph Lill says:

    One thing that is left out here is how a non-profit institution competes with a business that pays taxes. A brilliant and on-going idea that needs to be defined so that it doesn’t put existing businesses out of work is the key. As a former employee of Washington College I know that summer conference employment when the College is not in session helps to keep the dining and housekeeping staff together but at what cost in tax dollars? Will the College be subject to town and county taxes?

  12. eliott fuhrman says:

    this project is very very simple if go about it right way.First need min of 85 rms to support a first class bouteque hotel Waterfront will not work because use up too much ground for parking .A better site would be old police station and surrounding property. Not to risk any money first go to a hotel consulting co, that will do a study they will also give ideas of type size cost of project. Then go to hotel management co they will put the brand ,financing in place.Simple way do it is a condo hotel. college would only be user no need for any their funds.

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