Pine Bluff’s Plaza Hotel is a dump, so much so that even the vermin have moved out. We’d venture to guess that not many of you would stay there in its current condition. We wouldn’t. The thing about the Plaza is that it sits on one of the most important pieces of property in our community.
Being connected to the convention center, it can make or break big events looking for a host. Over the past few years, it’s broken them. Former Pine Bluff Convention Center Director Bob Purvis often said that the hotel’s condition was one of the chief reasons hindering conventions from being booked in our community. The convention center even blocked a once-shared door between the two properties because the hotel’s condition has gotten so deplorable in recent years.
The owner of the Plaza Hotel at a recent meeting with city officials initially agreed to make renovations to the facility before backing out. Officials said owner Mukesh Patel told them he bought the hotel because it was cheap, and he was waiting “to see what the city is going to do for him.”
Patel told the Commercial he never committed to renovations, and that as a business owner he has no obligation to make improvements. He said his plans will change according to how much traffic comes to the Pine Bluff Convention Center, and whether property values increase. It’s true, Mr. Patel, that you have no obligation to renovate this property, but we can’t understand why you would want to purchase and keep a property that you have no intention of improving. Have you ever once thought that the poor condition of your hotel is harming the convention center’s success?
Your promises of renovations have been empty thus far. It’s time for you to step up and do something for our community and for one of the most important hotels in our city. But we have little confidence that will happen. During a recent tour of the hotel led by Patel, several aldermen and a representative from Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington’s office saw firsthand what needs to be done at the property. It amounts to a full renovation.
“After talking with the aldermen and us, he said he would redo the ground floor and first floor of rooms to at least get them up to an acceptable standard,” former Civic and Auditorium Complex Commission Chairman Thomas Brown, who took part in the tour, said.
“[The meeting] finished at about 10 a.m… . That afternoon, he changed his mind. He doesn’t want to do repairs to the hotel. He said he basically bought the hotel because it was cheap.”
Sheri Storie, interim director of the Pine Bluff Convention Center, who also was on the tour, said that Patel told the group he was going to spend $1,200 to $1,500 per room on renovations.
“By the time I met with him that afternoon, he decided he would just take his best 40 rooms between the first two floors [and] buy new sheets, pillowcases and [provide] a deep clean,” Storie said.
Asked whether he promised to renovate the rooms, Patel said in a telephone interview that he “knew for sure I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything. I will tell you what I did. I purchased the hotel because it was cheap.”
It’s clear that Patel has no real interest in making the Plaza Hotel an asset for our community. So that brings us to a point: Why not use Go Forward Pine Bluff sales tax funds to purchase the property, renovate it, add a national chain brand to it, then market it for use as a true, full service convention hotel?
Or what about a partnership with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which would allow students in the various hospitality and business programs a chance at learning real-world, on-the-job training? The property is too important to our city to let it languish for another year. We are moving forward, Pine Bluff, and this is where the rubber meets the road.
A few years ago, the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, purchased and renovated a hotel next to their convention center using urban renewal bonds, then entered into a partnership with the Hilton hotel chain to run it. Profits from the hotel, along with a temporary diverson of taxes generated by room rentals, are being used to pay back the purchase price and renovation costs. It’s a bit of a risk, sure, but one we feel would be worth it.
We encourage our city leaders to study the Cedar Rapids model. As it is, the Plaza is a negative cloud hanging over our community. It’s time we band together and fix it.