In the spring of 2009, at the bottom of the financial crisis, dozens of newly hired hotel workers gathered to open the 200-room Crowne Plaza Hotel at 4700 E. Street Rd. in Trevose. The Bucks County hotel was managed by Hermani Hotels LLC, a Galloway, N.J., firm run by the father and son team of Niranjan and Mayur “Mike” Khatiwala.
Five years later, the bill for that opening came due. U.S. Bank, which held the hotel’s construction loan, complained in Philadelphia federal court that the Khatiwalas hadn’t paid. Judge Michael Baylson ordered the owners to come up with $17 million or face foreclosure.
In 2015, they secured a new lead loan for $13 million — not from a bank, but from the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, founded in 1951 to take deposits and make small loans to government workers.
But in December, the hotel, renamed Wyndham Hotel Philadelphia-Bucks County, lost its liquor license as dozens of liens for unpaid tax, utility, maintenance and wage claims piled up. Then the hotel was shut Jan. 29 on orders of the Bensalem Township fire marshal, and the owners declared bankruptcy Feb. 3.
Since the financial crisis, credit unions have become more popular among business borrowers, especially at larger institutions such as Philadelphia Federal, headed by president James McAneney.
Total loans at credit unions in Pennsylvania rose 83 percent, to $35 billion, from 2009 to 2019, according to the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). By contrast, loans from Pennsylvania commercial banks were down 11 percent, to $147 billion, according to Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council data.
Credit unions may fill the vacuum left in the mergers and shutdowns of local banks, but only if they can avoid the mistakes made by the nation’s savings and loans, another group of small, consumer-focused institutions. Many were ill-prepared when they rushed into business lending in the 1980s. One-third failed in the resulting S&L crisis, costing government-run insurers more than $100 billion.
The case of the Trevose hotel points to some of the risks.
In its most recent NCUA report, Philadelphia Federal’s mortgages with payments up to two months late more than doubled since the previous report three months earlier, to $21 million. If the hotel loan isn’t back on schedule by the end of March, it risks having to report a delinquency-to-loans rate more than double last year’s, which was already double the national credit-union average. That could prompt questions about loan management from regulators charged with preventing credit union losses.
The credit union may yet recover the $12 million it says it is owed.
“The strategy right now is to put the thing up for sale,” said Ronald S. Gellert, the owners’ bankruptcy lawyer.
The owners are trying to cancel their restaurant and bar agreement with Flight Hospitality LLC of Aston, so a buyer can seek another operator. Flight, which operated Brady’s pub and the Global Bistro at the Wyndham, offered to buy the hotel last fall, but the two sides did not reach agreement.
The hotel was last appraised in 2018 for $24.5 million, Gellert said, leaving a “massive equity cushion” to pay the loan, with millions to cover other claims, even at a shut-down discount. He added that the owners have made repairs and are ready to reopen. (Bensalem fire and police officials did not respond to inquiries.)
Wyndham Hotels, based in Parsippany, N.J., has dropped the hotel, spokeswoman Gabriella Chiera confirmed, and owners will have to find a new brand, or at least cover the Wyndham signs, before they might reopen.
Bankruptcy Judge Ashely Chan on Tuesday authorized the David R. Maltz auction house of Long Island to put the hotel up for sale. Maltz has not set a date and is trying to find an opening bidder, said spokeswoman Kerry Goldberg.
Former employees say the hotel’s manager, Ben Zabala, who had run a string of hotels since he was owner and operator of Roosevelt’s bar near 23rd and Walnut in the 1990s, held staff together for a time and even advanced his own cash when the company’s checks started bouncing.
But Zabala died the day after Christmas 2019 in New York, while attending the musical Hamilton with his son, Nick Zabala, and granddaughter. “There was nobody from the hotel ownership at the funeral,” Nick Zabala said.
“My dad believed you had to fill the hotel with good staff, keep up the standard, respond to customer feedback," he added. “About a year ago we got the first notice of a Bucks County sheriff’s sale. They had the school district, the township, the state payroll taxes, the Liquor Control Board, the elevator company, the boiler people. Medical claims.”
He figures his father advanced more than $20,000; he has submitted receipts for about two-thirds that amount.
Zabala has asked the United States Trustee’s office to appoint a trustee to investigate “fraud, dishonesty, incompetence or gross mismanagement,” citing a long record of bounced checks and payment claims against the owners. Zabala, who is a lawyer, and Flight chief executive Frank Battista, an accountant, say they are surprised Hermani was able to borrow so readily.
Court records show that 78 liens totaling more than $2 million had been filed against the current hotel owners. And that doesn’t count civil lawsuits by contractors who say they weren’t paid even when the company collected insurance settlements to fund their work. Almost half of the liens were filed before the credit union agreed to fund the hotel.
The credit union has had other challenges. Last year, business development manager Kevin Biederman was sentenced to fines, forfeiture of bribe proceeds, and a day in jail after pleading guilty for his role in a case that sent three Lower Southampton officials to prison on money-laundering charges. Also last year, the credit union admitted that hackers had withdrawn funds from hundreds of members’ accounts.
The credit union’s associate general counsel, Aimee Harmon declined to comment on the hotel loan, the conviction, or the hack.
Gellert, the hotel owners’ lawyer, says he’s confident the credit union will get paid, so long as the hotel gets sold at a price that covers the loan.