UNC Charlotte plans $84M hotel, conference center on campus

Ronald Reagan still lived in the White House when UNC Charlotte first added an on-campus hotel and conference center to its wish list. Now, the reality of such a project could be little more than two years away.

On Monday, UNCC chancellor Phil Dubois and representatives from the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority made a joint pitch to City Council for the long-sought hotel and conference center. Under the terms negotiated by the school and the tourism agency, the hotel and conference center would cost $84 million to build and open in time for the 2020 school year. 

The 4.4-acre site targeted for the project is located at the J.W. Clay Boulevard-UNCC stop on the Blue Line Extension light-rail line, located at the intersection of North Tryon Street. It requires approval from the zoning commission, a process already begun by the university.

Of the $84 million construction cost, a portion of existing tourism taxes would account for $8 million. Council would have to approve the visitors authority’s funding for the hotel. A vote is anticipated at the Aug. 27 council meeting.

All but $2 million of the remaining $76 million would come from the UNC Charlotte Foundation. The foundation would provide its portion by issuing $45 million in bonds, contributing $9 million in cash and raising $20 million through private investment. Marriott would kick in $2 million. 

The hotel will be a 226-room Marriott with a 24,000-square-foot conference center and a 132-space parking deck.

Dubois and visitors authority consultant Ron Kimble told council the conference center is twice the size of what similar-sized hotels usually build. The reason: Anticipated demand for academic conferences and other events driven by the on-campus location.

The visitors authority based its proposed investment in the project on the likelihood of campus conferences and meetings creating demand at nearby hotels in University City, potential bookings for large conventions in uptown because of the easy light-rail proximity carrying convention-goers from the campus hotel to uptown and simulcast connections to UNCC’s center city campus spurring more activity at both sites.

Part of the arrangement would include an ownership share for the visitors authority in the conference center’s ballroom and meeting rooms. Terms of that agreement with the university have yet to be negotiated. UNCC’s foundation would own the property and be responsible for its operations and maintenance.

Others involved in the project include the university’s trustees board, Stormont Hospitality (development manager), Sage Hospitality (hotel operator), Cooper Carry (architect), Balfour Beatty (general contractor), Hilltop Securities (financial advisors) and Jones Lang LaSalle (market analysis).

The $1.2 billion light-rail line connecting UNCC’s main campus and uptown along a nine-mile route opened in March, better connecting the school with the city’s central business district. Backers of the hotel and conference center believe this project will help the tourism sector and UNCC.

Based on estimates and analysis compiled by the university’s advisors and partners, the hotel and conference center would add $9 million combined in local and state taxes while creating 210 jobs. Projections for the hotel in its seventh year of operation include $13 million in room revenue, $5.5 million worth of food and beverage sales and a room-occupancy rate of 73.5%.

“This is a unique new addition to the tourism landscape,” Kimble told me Monday. “It’s a unique hotel that would have conference center on the light-rail line at the front door of the university on North Tryon Street and it would be digitally and electronically connected to the uptown campus building and to the convention center.”

Dubois, the chancellor, told CBJ it’s taken several decades for the conditions at and around UNCC to make the hotel project viable.

Growth in University City, surging enrollment near 30,000 students and the light-rail line opened this year make a more powerful case for building the hotel.

“Our argument is we can make all boats rise by trying to attract to the region, to University City and the campus, organizations that typically don’t come to Charlotte now because we don’t have a campus-based hotel,” Dubois said. “That was the case I’m making and (council will) have a month to think about it.”

If council approves the project by the end of summer, plans call for construction to start in January. The hotel would open in August 2020. 

Also at the council meeting on Monday, members unanimously approved a $20 million police station to be built uptown — a project deferred two weeks ago when some members grew frustrated over existing diversity contracting programs.

Since then, council’s economic development committee has expanded its scrutiny of those programs while also deciding not to hold up the police station any longer. Local firm Edifice landed the $20 million contract on Monday and will build the three-story, 31,000-square-foot station at West 5th and West 6th streets.

Ed Driggs, a council Republican, said that approving the project this week signaled to the business community the city won’t seek to change terms after a deal is negotiated. Previously, some on council hoped to revamp the diversity program in time to apply new standards to the CMPD station.

“We can’t stop everything” until the new standards are finished, Driggs told me.

Council moved ahead with a $20 million project connecting Bojangles’ Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium on Monday, approving Barnhill Contracting as the construction firm. Of that amount, construction accounts for $17 million of the budget with the rest going to design fees, pre-construction and other expenses. Odell Associates is the architect.

Bojangles’-Ovens and the CMPD uptown station have goals of 14% participation for small businesses and 10% for minority-owned firms. Work on the connector building will start later this year and finish in early-2020; the police station has an anticipated opening date of mid-2020.

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