Riverfront’s Dream Hotel Rises from a field of Weeds

Riverfront’s Dream Hotel Rises from a field of Weeds

December 12, 2013
The News Journal

When real estate developer Verino Pettinaro forked out $1.2 million in cash in 1986 to buy 86-acres on the Wilmington Riverfront, he believed the waterfront land was “too nice a property to let sit there.”

Not everyone thought so. The former shipyard, with its menacing vacant buildings, had become an urban ghost town that spooked even adventurous souls.

Today, Pettinaro, 75, admits “nobody wanted it.” So it’s with some satisfaction that Pettinaro watches the final stages of construction of the new $40 million hotel in an area once overrun with tall, spiny weeds.

“It’s going to be a big plus. Anything that gets more people down there is a big plus.,” said Pettinaro of the new Westin Wilmington Hotel. “It’s the nicest part of the city now.”

When the 180-room hotel adjacent to the Chase Center on the Riverfront opens in April, it is expected to add a key element missing from the area. The derelict industrial park has been transformed in the past 17 years – with the help of approximately $250 million in public money – to a new city neighborhood of condominiums, restaurants, movie theaters and a conference center. Many believed it needed a hotel.

Michael Purzycki, who has spearheaded the Riverfront’s redevelopment as executive director of the taxpayer-supported Riverfront Development Corp., said the 10-story Westin will serve as a kind of “landing spot” for both business travelers and tourists. Because the hotel is attached to the Chase Center by a vestibule, it also will enhance the RDC’s meeting and conventions business at the mini-convention center.

The RDC already has booked an August 2015 meeting of the Council of State Governments, which will bring in 400 to 500 people, Purzycki said. The Westin is one of the host hotels for the Delaware Marathon in May and the Carolina League All-Star game in June.

“We’ve always aspired to be a visitor destination, but we had no place to stay,” Purzcyki said.

Originally, the Chase Center was a 125,000-square-foot shipbuilding structure that was renovated as an exhibition hall for blockbuster shows. The plan was to hold regular exhibits that would bring thousands of out-of-town visitors to the waterfront. The art exhibit concept fizzled after a show about the last imperial family of czarist Russia that was underwritten primarily by the state.

By 2002, the RDC had abandoned big shows. It spent another $7 million to convert the structure to a mini-convention center that could handle everything from antiques shows to corporate training seminars to weddings. But the center lacked what the industry calls “hotel support.”

Purzycki, who was adamant the hotel be full-service, finally interested the Buccini/Pollin Group of Wilmington. In 2011, the state was considering providing a $6 million state-backed letter of credit for the project, but that plan was abandoned. Next, 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, D.C.

In the end, 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. He said there is a payment schedule over a number of years.

Now that a hotel is a reality, groups are beginning to show interest in holding meetings or conferences there, Purzycki said. It’s requiring the conference center and RDC to build a whole new culture, he said.

“We are confident that bookings for both properties will increase dramatically as the building is completed and the potential of the entire venue becomes evident,” Purzycki said.

The Westin will have a restaurant and 2,000 square feet of flexible space that could be used for events of up to 200 guests, according to the Buccini/Pollin Group website, which is developing the property through a separate entity. There also will be a swimming pool and fitness center.

The hotel will have 11 suites, including one 1,200-square-foot, presidential-style suite, Purzycki said. Other rooms will be king and double queens, he said. Room rates will range from $119 a night to $399 a night.

Originally, Pettinaro’s plan for the former Dravo Corp. shipyard was to develop a $60 million office and research park. Dravo of Pittsburgh moved to the site in 1927 and built scores of warships before closing in 1951. In 1944, the yard employed 6,500 people.

The research park gave way to a ballpark, restaurants, offices and housing. An attempt to have a factory-outlet shopping center missed the mark and the space now mostly is occupied by office users. Pettinaro still owns 20 acres on the Riverfront including two acres on the Christina River.

Still, nearly 30 years later, Pettinaro is satisfied to see the hotel rising on land he bought. “We started the whole thing,” he said.

That’s true, Purzycki said. “It wouldn’t have happened without Verino. He was the first one. It’s not easy to be first,” Purzycki said.

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