A developer assured city leaders on Monday that he remains committed to building a new hotel and convention center on Powell’s west end. Hotelier Steve Wahrlich of Billings told the Powell City …
A developer assured city leaders on Monday that he remains committed to building a new hotel and convention center on Powell’s west end. Hotelier Steve Wahrlich of Billings told the Powell City Council he expects to break ground on the Clocktower Inn within the next year.
The State of Wyoming appropriated $2.62 million in support of the approximately $10 million Clocktower Inn project, which is a private-public partnership between the City of Powell and Wahrlich. Under the terms of the grant agreement, the city would own a conference center attached to a privately owned, 75-room hotel; Wahrlich would operate the entire facility.
At Monday’s meeting, the council approved sending a letter of support to the Wyoming Business Council, which will extend the project’s construction period to June 2023.
The project was originally going to break ground in 2019, but it was delayed when Wahrlich had to take over operation of a restaurant connected to his Best Western Clocktower Inn in Billings.
The owners of Stella’s Bakery and Restaurant retired, and the restaurant is anchored to the Billings hotel. To keep it operating, Wahrlich purchased it.
“That put me a little behind the 8-ball,” Wahrlich said.
The groundbreaking was reset for the later summer of 2020. In February 2020, as COVID-19 began to shut down international travel, Wahrlich said he was at a conference in Denver, advising people to visit Yellowstone because the park wouldn’t be crowded. Shortly after, the pandemic spread across the U.S.
“Little did I know it would impact hospitality the way in which it has,” Wahrlich said.
Had the Powell Clocktower Inn gotten off the ground prior to the pandemic, Wahrlich said the hotel’s success would have been jeopardized.
“It would have been disastrous for me,” he said, telling the council he has $600,000 of his own money invested in the project. “… I’m somewhat grateful from that standpoint.”
Wahrlich added that the pandemic “dramatically hit” his existing businesses.
“I wondered if I’d be in business,” he said.
He took out two loans through the Payroll Protection Program — a federal program that provided forgivable loans for COVID-related losses — and received some relief through a Montana program.
“Without those, I probably would not be in business,” Wahrlich said.
He added that, as of last month, things are beginning to improve — and he sees the lodging industry rebounding as the pandemic wanes.
Wahrlich said people in West Coast cities, where lockdowns have been far stricter than in Wyoming, are going to be looking for nearby outdoor recreation opportunities.
The Powell Economic Partnership has been involved in helping Wahrlich secure funding from the state and remains an advocate for the project.
Rebekah Burns, executive director of PEP, told the council that the tourism industry is going to move into prominence as the energy industry in Wyoming continues to struggle.
“It’s more important than ever that we support the travel and tourism industry,” she said, in urging the council to approve the letter of support to the WBC for the project timeline extension.
She said in 2019, direct travel spending accounted for $470 million in Wyoming, which dropped to $320 million in 2020. In 2019, travel and tourism supplied 4,280 jobs in Park County, Burns said, which dropped to 3,830 jobs in 2020, when the pandemic limited travel.
“For a county of our size, that industry really is fueling our economy,” she said.
Burns said the hotel and conference room will help support the 22 eateries in Powell, as well as entertainment and attractions, such as the Homesteader Museum, Powell Golf Club and Powell Aquatic Center. It will also help the 30 retailers in town.
Burns said the impact of tourism and industry in Powell sometimes goes unnoticed, referring to tourists as “ghost travelers.”
“Nobody recognizes that they actually come through,” Burns said.
While he sees tourism improving this summer, Wahrlich said the meeting and conference industry will not likely start to come back until 2023 and won’t hit pre-COVID levels until 2024.
“That market has been decimated,” Wahrlich said.
There are other uncertainties as well, including the rising cost of construction materials. Wahrlich said he expects that will be resolved as supply chains start to meet rising demand. What might be a larger issue is labor.
Wahrlich said a few contractors took interest in a $4 million project in downtown Billings, but there was only one bid, which came in 25% over the estimated budget. He was told the other contractors shied away from the project for fear they wouldn’t have the subcontractors they needed to complete the work.
The state funding for the Clocktower Inn of Powell, awarded in 2018, is not tied to any deadlines, meaning the project could theoretically be delayed indefinitely and not lose the state funding.
Amy Quick, northwest regional director for the WBC, has said the state could pull the funding if there was some indication that the project was being abandoned. However, the council’s approval of the letter of support spoke to Wahrlich’s ongoing commitment to completing the hotel and convention center.
“I think we’ll come out of this,” Wahrlich said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
Once completed, Burns said the Clocktower Inn in Powell could support the equivalent of up to 35 full-time jobs.