by MAUREEN MILFORD, The News Journal, The News Journal of Wilmington, Del. ,Wilmington ,Delaware, and AP, Posted: January 15, 2013
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Not since the 1980s — when developers constructed the Chase Manhattan Bank building and the Park Plaza condo tower in Wilmington — have motorists along Interstate 95 gotten such an up-close view of skyline-altering construction.
Although the elevator-stair towers poking out of the ground next to the Chase Center on the Riverfront south of downtown are just the first evidence of what will become the new 10-story Westin Wilmington Hotel, their high profile has gotten people buzzing.
"People are asking: 'What's going on down there?' They're curious about the area," said Bob Chappell, manager of the Wilmington Scout Shop in the Shipyard Business Center, located just yards from the hotel site.
Michael Purzycki, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corp., which is developing the hotel with a Buccini/Pollin Group entity, said the $37 million lodging will add architectural balance to the redevelopment area along the Christina River waterfront when it opens in spring 2014.
Most of the construction along the stretch of the river paralleling I-95 has been midrise buildings, including apartments, offices, restaurants, cinema and museums. The other major towers in the area are two residential buildings in the Christina Landing development located to the north of the hotel site, Purzycki said.
"The Westin brand will help with enhancing the identity of the Wilmington Riverfront — a pretty bold quality statement traveling north," said Purzycki, whose taxpayer-supported organization has been working since the late 1990s to revive what was once a derelict industrial zone.
The development corporation had planned for years to bring a hotel to the Riverfront, and there have been several proposals that never got off the drawing boards.
By 2006, the RDC had aggressive plans to develop two hotels within walking distance that would complement the Center on the Riverfront, making it more attractive for multiday conferences, meetings and other events.
Once it was decided in 2011 to build a 180-room hotel adjacent to the Chase Center, developers sought financial incentives from the state, including a $6 million state-backed letter of credit. In late 2011, the RDC sponsored an application for a $2 million grant from the state's New Jobs Infrastructure Fund to support the hotel.
The RDC and developer BPG Hotel Partners XXI LLC pulled the application after lawmakers expressed concerns about the use of state money. Partners in the BPG hotel company were listed as Robert Buccini, of Chadds Ford, Pa.; Christopher Buccini, of Wilmington; and David Pollin, of Washington.
Delaware hotel operators also expressed concern that public financial backing would give the Westin an unfair competitive advantage at a time when the state's lodging industry is dealing with a soft economy and low occupancy rates. In May, the Markell administration dropped its push for direct financial support.
According to Purzycki, the city of Wilmington and the RDC ended up providing $3 million in loan guarantees. Buccini/Pollin, which has been the major developer along the Riverfront, will buy the less than 1-acre hotel site from the RDC for $2.5 million, Purzycki said.
"The Westin allows us to become a visitor destination, and it creates far more prospects for the Chase Center," Purzycki said. "Just having a nice place to stay for visitors is as much a game changer as anything else we will have done over the years."
Purzycki said he expects greater interest in the Riverfront from corporate tenants. He's also had several nibbles from potential restaurants. Already, the RDC is busy trying to book future events for the Chase Center that will bring guests to the hotel.
Joe Barone, who works at Bank of America, said he hopes the hotel will spur additional development, including attracting restaurants to the area.
"I fish on the river a lot, and it's nice to look up and see the buildings," he said. "On the Fourth of July, we came up on a boat from Newport to see the fireworks."
Paul Andreas, who works in visitors' services at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, said he hopes guests at the Westin will bring more traffic to the museum.
He's already thinking ahead to the time when the museum's offerings will be available in the lobby.