Billings hotelier Steve Wahrlich was in Powell Tuesday to speak at the monthly meeting of the Powell Economic Partnership Advisory Board meeting, where he gave an update on the project and asked for feedback.
“Development, especially with new projects, I like to say, ‘There’s many a slip between a cup and a lip,’” Wahrlich said after the meeting. “I think people think about it, ‘Well, it’s just going to be done.’ These things take time, and a lot of things come up. So I think it’s helpful to get some of that education from them, and from that standpoint, I think it went well.”
The new hotel would be located in the Gateway West Business Park off West Coulter Avenue, on four acres of land.
“We’ve got the land tied up; we bought and own the land. We’ve got the preliminary drawings set,” Wahrlich said.
He estimated in January that the project would cost between $6 and $7 million to construct; Wahrlich said last week that he’s still gauging interest from investors.
“Financially, it has to be feasible, those lines always need to come together. Now for me, over the next six or seven months will be finding several investors to come along,” Wahrlich said. “I don’t have the wherewithal to do it by myself; I make no bones about that.”
Powell Economic Partnership Executive Director Christine Bekes said the need for more lodging in Powell is something she hears often. PEP and the Powell Valley Chamber of Commerce are elevating their efforts to attract visitors to Powell by elevating the visitor’s center, Bekes said. But she said the downside is that, if visitors come, Powell offers limited lodging.
“Just to have some more lodging in town is going to be a real plus,” Bekes said. “We just don’t have enough, and I hear that still. The need for it has not lessened, and now, with the integrated role with the chamber and the visitor’s center, it is just as front-and-center as it was from an economic development perspective.”
Wahrlich has been in the hotel business for 45 years. He currently owns the Best Western Clocktower Inn in Billings, and has always been active in the communities he does business in. Once he secures financing, he’s optimistic he could set a completion date for late 2019 or early 2020.
“I think we’re en route,” he said, suggesting April of 2020 would be a good month.
Bekes said she was pleased Wahrlich was able to take the time to speak at the board meeting, and was encouraged by the feedback from those in attendance. Bekes and Wahrlich have been working together on the hotel project for more than two years.
“It’s a big project, and there’s a lot of moving parts,” Bekes said. “As much as I would want it to happen overnight, I am really thankful to have it moving forward, but more importantly, to have it moving forward with this developer. I feel like Steve [Wahrlich] is getting to know our community still, and I think that is critical for success here and will help it be successful in the future.”
At last week’s meeting, Wahrlich welcomed feedback on the size of the proposed conference/meeting room. Ideally, he would like it to be in the 200-250 person accommodation range, complete with a catering kitchen and the latest technology for audio/visual presentations. Wahrlich accompanied Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa on a tour of the new Yellowstone Building to get an idea of what the college is working with; the college is not in the business of hosting conferences and meetings unrelated to NWC, Wahrlich said he learned.
“I don’t want to come in and take from those that are already doing it; it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “But that’s not their core business, so it works from that standpoint.”
From a community meeting space perspective, Powell does offer options, from The Commons downtown to the new exhibit hall and conference rooms at the fairgrounds. The difference, according to Bekes, is that those meeting places are not associated with lodging.
“I often go to conferences where the conference and the lodging are attached,” Bekes said. “I think that is definitely a selling point.”
Asked why he chose Powell over other possible locations, Wahrlich said the answer was simple.
“The community,” he said. “The support. That’s why it’s probably taken so long. Would somebody come in and just plop down a 70-80 unit in Powell? Probably not. You need that support.”
Wahrlich acknowledged that he has concerns about slow business between November and February.
“Those four months scare me, I make no bones about it,” he said. “This becomes a community property. The community has to look at this and say, ‘Hey I gotta bring my meeting to Powell.’ That’s what it’s going to take. It’s the people of Powell [that will make the project work]. One is lip service, the other one is action. The more successful Powell is, the more successful I’ll be; I really believe that. That’s what I did here in Billings, and that’s what I’ve done in my whole career.”
Wahrlich added that he realizes that “I have to perform as an operator.”
Bekes said adding to Powell’s lodging capacity will attract more events and entice teams competing in sporting and academic events in Powell to stay here. Early meetings between Wahrlich and PEP with entities like the Powell school district, the hospital, the college and the fairgrounds included discussions about potential business Powell may be missing out on because of lack of lodging.
“Some of the major players in the community have said, ‘We know we need this, and these are the things we do now and are serviced by enough lodging, and these are the things we’d likely do if we had more lodging,’” Bekes said. She said that played a major part in Wahrlich choosing Powell.