Garth Stapley

The city has a lovely vision for downtown Modesto. But a bad idea for how to get there

The vision of a lively, vibrant downtown — a place pulsing with positive energy, drawing people near and far, day and night — is bewitching to those who love Modesto. At times it seems we’re getting close.

So I and others on The Modesto Bee Editorial Board were looking forward to a meeting last Thursday with some city officials, specifically to chat about the city’s idea for a new 200-room downtown hotel next to our convention center, Modesto Centre Plaza. The new $37 million hotel and the existing 258-room DoubleTree by Hilton would bookend the convention center.

We had heard from influential businesspeople that the DoubleTree can’t always accommodate their visiting clients from out of town. A sparkling new hotel cooperating with the DoubleTree would only bring more life, helping our city’s heartbeat grow ever stronger. Right?

Well ... maybe.

Opinion

Questions have dogged this new hotel idea from the start.

When Bee reporter Kevin Valine first learned about it, shortly after it surfaced in April, he talked to the DoubleTree’s general manager, who was skeptical mostly because Modesto’s convention center simply doesn’t draw a ton of conferences and other big events.

Hmm. If an important potential partner isn’t on board, how valid can the idea be?

Some optimistic city leaders pressed forward. A new study — costing taxpayers $59,300 — indicated that a nice new hotel could be feasible, they insisted. They wanted to spend another $380,000 finding out.

But the study’s conclusion was fraught with ifs.

  • The new hotel might be OK if the city finds adequate parking. The hotel would replace a parking lot adjacent to the convention center, on 11th Street between J and K streets.
  • The new hotel might work if someone would renovate the aging convention center. Estimated cost: $3.2 million. That’s an awfully big if.
  • If a major operator could be lured, the hotel might close a “funding gap” of up to $5.8 million and start to break even in the third year of operation, and might become an attractive investment by year 10.

Some of those ifs seem like a stretch.

Others came to the same conclusion. Two people and City Councilwoman Kristi Ah You shared doubts publicly at a City Council meeting a couple of weeks ago. Their main question: If this is such a great idea, why is the city pitching it and not developers?

I spoke with City Manager Joe Lopez, who quickly recruited some staff and Mayor Ted Brandvold to answer The Bee’s questions at the meeting I mentioned, last Thursday.

I’ve worked downtown 25 years. I remember the days when streets and sidewalks were unnervingly barren on nights and weekends, and marginally better on weekdays when workers came to offices. Over the years, a renaissance of sorts, with new restaurants and a few cool shops and the Gallo Arts Center coming in, has been joyous to watch. I and many others pray it keeps going in the right direction.

So I really hoped Brandvold and his crew would come Thursday with good answers. We asked pointed questions about a vote scheduled for Tuesday where the council might approve a timeline and budget for the new hotel project, including steps to spend that $380,000, including paying someone to talk someone else into building this hotel.

Unfortunately, our meeting didn’t go as well as anyone had hoped. They were gracious but couldn’t answer some simple questions, such as the DoubleTree’s current occupancy rate. Brandvold came off as defensive. Even our visiting editors — members of the community who rely on common sense acquired from real-life experiences to help shape our editorial opinion — were not impressed.

And the next day, the mayor scrapped the whole idea, removing the vote from Tuesday’s agenda. He sent word via spokesman Thomas Reeves that Brandvold and unnamed staff had met that morning, Friday, with “an expert in hotel development” who provided “additional perspectives” needing time for more review.

Perhaps the expert succeeded in explaining why the major ifs above need solid answers before we even think about a new hotel.

Perhaps the city remembers the sting of losing in foreclosure the land under the DoubleTree’s predecessor, the Red Lion Hotel, for which the city had paid $1.4 million and had counted on to receive another $4.2 million in future lease payments.

Or maybe city officials saw writing on the wall and didn’t relish the thought of another negative editorial, this one criticizing them for bringing to the brink a half-baked idea with a hefty public price tag.

Either way, postponing this vote — or scrapping it altogether — is the right move for now.

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.
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