An architect and developer who made a surprise pitch last week for a downtown Bloomington hotel connected to Grossinger Motors Arena says the project may not require much city investment.
Jim Pearson from the Vantage Group Ltd. announced last week that he wants to spearhead the search for a developer and investors to build a 110-room hotel and 48,000-square-foot convention center just north of the arena, on a city-owned parking lot. He said finally building the hotel—an idea some consider the missing link for the financially struggling arena—would revitalize downtown.
“(The arena) will be successful if a hotel and conference center is added to it. You’re going to get more events coming there if there’s a place where someone can get a room and spend the night,” he said.
Pearson could not provide an estimated cost for the project. But he said the “public” part of the proposed public-private partnership could be limited to the city-owned land north of the arena and some assistance during the initial Request for Proposal (RFP) stage of the project.
“It may not need any city money in the pot,” said Pearson. He did, however, note the Town of Normal made a financial investment in its two Uptown Normal hotels.
Pearson does not have extensive development experience. He formed the Vantage Group in the mid-1990s to develop the $7.6 million Bloomington Police station building and parking structure. Pearson said he hasn’t successfully completed any developments in the years since. (Pearson also works as the principal architect at the Pearson Design Group.)
Pearson announced his downtown hotel plan during the public comment period of the Bloomington City Council meeting Jan. 8. It was an unusual venue to float such a big idea, but Pearson said he considered it the “eleventh hour” because aldermen were moving ahead with discussion about other potential catalyst projects for downtown Bloomington.
Pearson also made headlines in 2015 for offering to buy the city’s three golf courses. That never happened.
“It was now or never,” Pearson said of his hotel pitch.
Pearson is not the first developer to propose a downtown hotel. Developer Jeff Giebelhausen has pushed for a hotel at the site of the Front ’N Center building. Separately, David Bentley once proposed a boutique hotel for The Pantagraph building. Neither has come to fruition.
Bentley said he’s dropped the idea but still thinks downtown would benefit from a hotel. Giebelhausen hasn’t closed the door on his own project.
“The reality is we are very flexible in what users purchase or re-tenant the various properties. While a hotel is certainly a use that I personally believe is needed in the downtown area, it is just one of the options that we are considering,” Giebelhausen said in an email. “A hotel is undoubtedly one of the most costly of the various re-tenanting or redevelopment options (and also one of the most positively impactful on downtown). We are pleased with the interest level for a boutique hotel, but are not in a position to suggest it will or will not ultimately be part of our plans.”
Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said any downtown hotel project “has to pay for itself. There’s not one penny of current taxpayer dollars we’re going to dedicate to it.”
“I look forward to our staff vetting (Pearson’s) proposal and taking a look at it in more detail,” Renner said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “I’d love to work with Jim on this. I hope this turns out favorably.”
Pearson said he’ll submit a “detailed scope and draft outline” of his plan to Interim City Manager Steve Rasmussen within the next week. Pearson's group will "issue a national RFP to recruit and secure interested parties with experience in hotel operations and conference center successes," Pearson said. That RFP will ask for construction estimates, local contractors, capital lenders, and investors, he said.
Pearson is also a member of the Bloomington Planning Commission. His term ends in April.
“I would step away if there was a conflict of interest raised,” Pearson said.
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