The George may get a reprieve

Published 6:27 am Tuesday, June 12, 2007

By Staff
Two groups looking at taking over downtown project
Contributing Editor
Two groups are interested in taking over The George — Little Inn at Washington project that calls for rehabilitating the former Hotel Louise in Washington into a modern, downtown hotel.
Progress Partners, which initiated The George project several years ago, is negotiating with those groups, said Stan Friedman, managing partner with Progress Partners, during the Washington City Council meeting Monday. Existing investors in The George project could align themselves with one of the groups considering taking over the project, Friedman said.
Council members indicated the latest developments involving The George are good news.
City officials have had particular concerns with The George — Little Inn at Washington. They feared that unless that project met specific criteria by June 30, there would be a possibility the $750,000 component of a $1 million grant would have to be returned to the state. Earlier this year, Mayor Pro Tempore Darwin Woolard said losing that money would be a blow to the city’s efforts to revitalize its downtown.
Bobby Roberson, the city’s director of planning and development, told the council that Gail Brock, an administrator with the state’s Division of Community Assistance, said the $750,000 could remain available for the project if DCA is convinced that a new entity behind the project will get things done. Brock also said that once Progress Partners decides which group takes over the project, the city will be required to hold a public hearing on that group’s proposal for rehabilitating the old hotel, Roberson said.
Brock is also expecting a letter from the city informing DCA about any change in status regarding The George project, Roberson said.
After reviewing a revised plan for The George project, Brock is expected to provide the city a timeline for the revamped project to meet certain criteria, Roberson said. That letter is expected by the end of July.
Roberson said he’s “comfortable” when it comes to the $750,000 being saved if the new project developers meet the grant criteria.
The project has been plagued with delays.
In February 2005, Washington was notified it had been awarded a $1 million grant to help renovate the historic downtown Hotel Louise. That project called for the city to lend $750,000 to Progress Partners to renovate the Hotel Louise building and create some full-time jobs. The project’s original plans called for a spa and restaurant to be housed in the renovated structure. The city was the conduit by which the grant from the state passed to The George project and a facade-improvement project for eligible downtown properties.
In October 2005, Fred Fletcher, managing partner of Progress Partners at the time, appeared before the Washington City Council to provide an update on The George project. At that time, Fletcher said Progress Partners was waiting on approvals from the National Park Service and the State Historic Preservation Office before it could proceed with the project. The agencies’ approvals are required before the project can receive tax credits. Fletcher said construction drawings and subsequent steps to begin construction on the project couldn’t begin until the two agencies approved project plans.
Fletcher said then the State Historic Preservation Office was “waffling” when it came to its review of the plans. He said then that indecision was a “nightmare” that had Progress Partners “trying to figure out what we can build.”
Almost a year later, Fletcher appeared before the council, informing its members that the plan for penthouse condominiums on top of the former Hotel Louise building had been abandoned, requiring Progress Partners to return to the state for approval of changes made to The George project.
Fletcher said then he hoped demolition work for the George project would begin in December 2006. It did not.
At that October 2006 meeting, Councilman Archie Jennings expressed concern with the project, noting the end of the grant period was less than 60 days away. If the project was not under way by then, the state could demand its grant be returned. Later, city officials learned the state had extended the deadline for the project to begin until June 30, 2007.
Administrative and organizational changes within Progress Partners resulted in Fletcher leaving the company, according to a press release issued by Progress Partners in January. Fletcher was replaced by Friedman, who lives in Washington.
In an interview in January, Friedman said Progress Partners continues to seek new strategies for development of The George — Little Inn at Washington and Moss Landing, another Progress Partners project.
For more coverage of the council’s meeting, see future editions of the Daily News.