Published: Aug 04, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Aug 02, 2012 02:58 PM
A $5.7-million subsidy for a company planning to convert the former SunTrust Building into a luxury hotel/art museum is the main item of business when the City Council resumes its regular meeting schedule Monday night.
The incentive, payable over 20 years and payable only if 21c Museum Hotels of Louisville, Ky. meets deadlines for construction start and finish, and operates the hotel for the full term, got a warm reception when presented at a council work session July 18.
“I am supportive of this, because I do think this is an absolutely key building downtown,” Councilman Steve Schewel said, though he added that he would like to see city government “weaning ourselves” from development incentives in an increasingly prosperous downtown.
The idea has also found a warm reception from some Durham arts aficionados.
“It’s not a deal for a hotel, it’s a deal for a museum,” said Dan Ellison, a lawyer who bought and renovated the old Palms Restaurant building on Chapel Hill Street to be a studio and exhibit space for artists. “It will be an incredible asset.”
The Kentucky hoteliers, who are also seeing a $2 million incentive from the county, plan to buy the 17-story landmark from current owner Greenfire Development. Greenfire bought it in 2006 after SunTrust Bank decided against doing a costly renovation to comply with new fire codes and vacated all but the bottom floors.
According to 21c’s current budget, conversion will cost $48 million, including $500,000 for a permanent art collection.
Founded by two wealthy Kentucky art connoisseurs, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c opened its 90-room flagship hotel in downtown Louisville in 2006. With its accommodations augmented by an on-site museum of contemporary art, the hotel has won wide acclaim – picked among the world’s top 10 in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2010 and 2011 reader polls.
Durham arts patron Dan Ellison is a believer, too. Visiting Louisville a few years ago, Ellison said, he was told the 21c was a must-see attraction.
“It truly is a museum, with cutting-edge contemporary artwork. It’s not pablum for the masses, it’s cutting-edge art that’s worthy of any museum,” he said.
As an example of “the cutting edge-ness,” he said, one wall in the men’s room is, from waist height up, a two-way mirror: People out in the hotel see just a mirrored wall, while those using the facility get a view looking out.
“That plays with people’s minds,” Ellison said, “and that’s what good art does.”
The company has two museum hotels under construction, one in Cincinnati and one in Bentonville, Ark.
“I’ve had the opportunity to check out some of the other stuff they’ve done, and it’s really quality stuff,” said former Durham Arts Council Director E’Vonne Coleman, who is now an executive with the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Quality art and quality concept,” Coleman said. “The fact it will be accessible and open to the public, and not just some standoffish high-end hotel, I think is a nice complement."