New hotel and convention center put on hold amid pandemic

Posted 9/29/20

The developer of the proposed Clocktower Inn of Powell says he remains committed to bringing the project to fruition, but construction has been postponed indefinitely amid the COVID-19 …

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New hotel and convention center put on hold amid pandemic

Posted

The developer of the proposed Clocktower Inn of Powell says he remains committed to bringing the project to fruition, but construction has been postponed indefinitely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hotel and convention center was originally supposed to break ground in 2019 and, pre-pandemic, was set for a groundbreaking in August or September. But as Powell enters the fall, the site in the Gateway West business park remains empty and undeveloped.

“We’re sort of in a wait and see,” said Billings hotelier Steve Wahrlich, who is spearheading the development.

“We are still anxious to do the project,” Wahrlich added in a Thursday interview, “but I’m not going to do it without knowing we’re going to have business through and through.”

According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a hospitality lobbying organization, 67% of hotels report they’re not going to be able to survive more than six more months at current occupancy rates, and half are under threat of foreclosure due to the pandemic.

“Obviously the world has changed since COVID, to say the least,” Wahrlich said.

He added that, if the project would have been on schedule and currently operational, it would have been as severely strained as other lodging establishments.

The State of Wyoming has 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 75-room hotel, which would be owned and operated by Wahrlich.

The Powell Economic Partnership was involved in helping Wahrlich secure funding from the state and remains an advocate for the project. Rebekah Burns, PEP executive director, said support for the project has not waivered from any of the project stakeholders.

Wahrlich “is committed to the Clocktower Inn of Powell. The City of Powell is committed to the project. The investors are committed, and PEP is committed. The Wyoming Business Council is patient and supportive,” Burns said.

Burns said the project is “paramount for Powell’s growth and prosperity” and would provide a “ripple effect for our retailers, restaurants and attractions.”

The state funding, awarded in 2018, is not tied to any deadlines — meaning the project could theoretically be delayed indefinitely and not lose the state funding.

“We don’t have hard and fast rules for timelines,” said Amy Quick, northwest regional director for the Wyoming Business Council (WBC), which made the $2.6 million grant.

Quick said these kinds of projects require flexibility in timing. The WBC could pull the funding if there was some indication that the project was being abandoned, but Quick said Wahrlich remains committed.

Since the funding was obligated in the state’s previous biennium, it remains untouched by the current cuts sweeping through state budgets in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

“They are, in our mind, funds that are already spent,” Quick said.

The facility’s liquor license, however, could potentially be in jeopardy.

Councilors awarded the city’s final retail liquor license to the Clocktower Inn of Powell in December 2018 after Wahrlich said the license was needed to help make the project viable. Owners of the Lovell-based gym Club Dauntless had also applied for the license for a planned golf simulator and sports bar, which was to be built next to a gym. In a split, 4-2 vote, the council decided to grant the license to the Clocktower Inn, over concerns that denying the license would jeopardize the project; Club Dauntless went on to open a standalone gym in December.

In November, Wahrlich asked the council to renew the Clocktower Inn’s unused license and councilors agreed to do so. At the hearing, Wahrlich said the project was delayed as a result of him having to buy a restaurant associated with his Clocktower Inn in Billings, after the previous restaurant owners retired. At a February PEP meeting, Wahrlich said a general contractor had been selected for the project and they’d be breaking ground this summer, but the COVID-19 pandemic followed weeks later.

City Clerk Tiffany Brando said the Wyoming Liquor Division has said they would prefer the city not renew the Clocktower Inn’s license so Powell doesn’t have non-operational licenses for extended periods. That would make the liquor license available to any eligible business that applies. State law allows the council to renew the license “due to extraordinary circumstances” — meaning the council has the option to extend it. However, Wahrlich said Thursday that he planned to meet with Club Dauntless and indicated he might not pursue another extension.

“Being a good steward of the community, I don’t want to hold things up,” Wahrlich said.

He’s considering the possibility that, with establishments closing due to the pandemic and the hotel on hold, he can wait for another license to become available.

The Powell City Council is set to consider the renewal of all of the city’s liquor licenses at its Nov. 16 meeting.

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