Conway hotel study stimulates ideas to make it happen

sjones@thesunnews.comMay 4, 2013 

— To cities with less grit, a feasibility study finding that a longtime dream of some residents is not a good idea now would be reason to shelve the study and say we’ll come back to it later.

But in Conway, a consultant’s pronouncement that more work is needed before a hotel can be successful downtown is a call to speed up the process and get the hotel on the ground.

The city was looking at a boutique, 90-room hotel that would have a 5,000-square-foot banquet room with kitchen facilities. The idea has been discussed for years in Conway, and the feasibility study is the first scientific look at the possibility.

Despite the study’s finding, said Mayor Alys Lawson, it has actually stimulated interest in the idea, exactly the goal she said the City Council had in funding it.

In fact, she and downtown landowner Larry Biddle are among those who believe that the right alignment of forces could bring results in just a year or two.

Lawson said the study showed the cost of a hotel in downtown Conway right now would fall about $3 million short of the revenue it would need to cover construction costs. At the same time, she said the consultant who did the study noted that there are things that could shortcut the process.

Biddle said that a public-private coalition of the right landowner, interested hotelier, farsighted developer and the city could make it happen.

“I think it would take those four entities to make it work,” he said.

Biddle said the Burroughs Co., of which he is president, has four pieces of riverfront property he believes would work for a boutique-type hotel. He said the company has not yet contacted any hoteliers, but believes five-year to 10-year tax incentives from the city could go a long way toward attracting interest in the project.

Lawson said that while the City Council has said it feels favorable toward the concept of city incentives and other things to boost the case for a hotel, nothing specific has been discussed or agreed to.

She said that there are a number of areas downtown that would work for the hotel the city envisioned, and she agreed with Biddle that a riverfront location would capitalize on one of the downtown’s two major assets. The other is history, and Biddle said the impending opening of the new Horry County Museum could help to generate traffic for a hotel.

Lawson said another idea that’s been floated was a demonstration kitchen that would be a place well-known chefs could show off their prowess using locally-grown produce and other area products. She pointed to a similar setup in California’s Sonoma Valley while cautioning that Conway’s demonstration kitchen likely would not be of the same magnitude.

But it could be another destination attraction for visitors.

“We were encouraged to think out of the box,” Lawson said about advice to stimulate more business in the downtown.

Bill Graham, Conway’s city administrator, said the city expects to get feedback on other guidance for development possibilities from a downtown retail analysis that’s being undertaken at the same time as the hotel feasibility study, which Graham expects to be finalized in weeks.

“I think it’s important to know the facts so that we can put the pieces together to enhance downtown Conway,” Graham said earlier this week.

Graham said the consultant doing the hotel feasibility study, PKF Consulting in Atlanta, has said it will “take more than what’s going on now in downtown Conway” to justify the expense of developing it.

More restaurants are among the things that could work in the downtown area, he said. Another possibility would be to encourage property owners to create downtown residences on the floors above retail spaces.

Again, Biddle said that at least some of the Burroughs Co. property in the downtown could be adapted for second-floor living.

Biddle said that Conway has enough things that are found nowhere else along the Grand Strand to justify it blossoming into a destination of its own.

“Anytime you’re unique,” he said, “you don’t have to compete.”

Lawson said things such as the growth of Coastal Carolina University or the location of a new industry near town would further bolster the case for a hotel.

And she stands with Biddle and others in Conway in believing that the long-held dream may be close to fruition.

“I think it’s sooner rather than later,” she said.

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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