For the past few years, the Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit has stood shuttered and empty, a looming symbol of the city’s better days. But now, the Pontch looks like it is coming back to life, thanks to a Mexican developer.
The Detroit News reported this morning that the 25-story hotel was purchased by Gabriel Ruiz, a Mexican businessman, and that the hotel will become a Crowne Plaza once more.
Bill Bohde, a senior vice president of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the InterContinental Hotels Group, which runs the Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts chain, informed him of the sale last week.
Bohde says he understands the group has an agreement in principle to make it part of the Crowne Plaza chain, and restore it as a 416-room property.
The hotel, nicknamed “the Pontch” by Detroiters, has one of the premium locations in all of downtown, across from the Cobo Convention Center. But it has been shut since 2009, when its air conditioning system failed.
Built in 1965, the Pontchartrain sits on the same spot as Fort Pontchartrain, the European settlement founded in 1701. Legend has it that Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the city’s founder, disembarked from his canoe on the banks of the Detroit River just south of the hill where the Pontchartrain sits.
In its heyday, the hotel symbolized everything modern about the city and the automobile industry. It had a piano bar, a penthouse nightclub called the Top of the Pontch, and its terrace was the site for numerous outdoor parties with live music.
George W. Bush stayed at the hotel during the 1980 Republican convention, and the reporters who covered his campaign, dubbed the Mournful Pundits, held a party attended by Bush as well as historian Theodore H. White. There once were plans for a second tower, never built.
The Pontch became embroiled in the nation’s savings and loan scandal in 1985, when it was sold to the Crescent Hotel Group, a subsidiary of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. You can read how it became linked to the Keating Five here.
If the Pontch comes back to life, it would face a challenging hotel market. Once a place with few top-flight rooms, Detroit has seen a flurry of new hotels open in recent years, a number connected to the city’s casinos.
But even the new properties in Detroit average a 60 percent occupancy rate. While they are packed during the North American International Auto Show and special events, they often have a number of vacancies during normal weeks.
Another premier Detroit property, the historic Westin Book-Cadillac, reopened with fanfare in 2009. However, its developer last month failed to make part of his interest payment on a $15 million loan, according to the Detroit News.
A city of Detroit pension fund ended up making the payment to avoid a loan default. Hotel developers often are separate from the companies that operate the properties.
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