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Opponents of Principal Chief Patrick Lambert are crying foul over a $5.6 million contract between the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise and the Cherokee Grand Hotel — which Lambert and his wife own — saying that its existence violates tribal ethics laws.

fr lakejterraceJack Ewing stepped over a pail of drywall mud, dodged electrical wires dangling from the ceiling and picked his way across construction debris littering the bare concrete floor of the gutted Terrace Hotel room.

The shell of a vacant four-story hotel sitting partially finished on Sylva’s main drag for three years is finally going somewhere.

Developers from Greensboro bought the vacant hotel along N.C. 107 for $850,000 and are promising to pump an additional $2 million into completing the project.

The hotel was partially constructed beginning in 2008 and has widely been considered an eyesore. It was supposed to become a Clarion Inn, but the original developers TJ Investments, the father and son team Thomas and John Dowden of Cashiers, went into bankruptcy. Alpharetta Community Bank of Georgia, which foreclosed after the men failed to payoff a $5-million loan, owned the hotel. The newly formed Sylva Hotel Group recently bought the property for $850,000.

Developer Stephen Austin said he and his two partners in the project have settled on a national hotel chain to brand the 78-room hotel, which includes a convention room and space for a restaurant, but added that they aren’t ready to disclose which one.

He said the bargain-basement purchase price made the deal a good venture.

“Sylva is not an extremely deep hotel market,” he said. “We’re going to do our very best to have a hotel that is worthy of our business.”

Austin said that the men’s pre-purchase market studies indicated that Sylva hotel occupancy rates run at about 50 percent, lower than the national average of more than 60 percent. Even after figuring that higher vacancy rate into the business plan, Austin said the getting-in price made it a sound investment.

“If you are going to build a new hotel, it helps to get in at a good price,” he said. “We’ll have a total of about $3 million in the project. We’re also excited to be able to take a piece of property and produce something of value, create an asset for the community.”

Austin said he and his partners are hoping to start construction soon and open the new hotel this year.

Town Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lives near the hotel, said he is excited that it sold and is going to be finished and used.

Five years ago, the town OK’d an exemption to its building height restrictions, allowing the proposed Clarion Inn to have four stories instead of three. The developers at the time claimed they needed a 75-foot maximum height instead of just 45 feet as mandated by town regulations.

Hensley said he believed the purchase was indicative that the local economy is starting to shake off the recessionary blues.

“I don’t know much about the details, but to me, it’s excellent news that this can move forward and progress,” Hensley said.

Paige Roberson, assistant to the town manager and director of the town’s Main Street program, echoed Hensley’s optimism. She said that at least two other vacant stores in town have seen movement recently. Cope’s Superette, a downtown newsstand that closed in December, is being reopened as an antique store; the crematorium of Moody’s Funeral Home is being repurposed as a doctor’s office.

When construction on the lofty Clarion Inn started in 2008, the town of Sylva thought it was finally going to get a recognizable name-brand hotel to help attract visitors and commerce.

Three years later, and the Clarion Inn is instead the town’s biggest eyesore, defacing the viewscape high atop a mountain along the main commercial corridor. If the unfinished hotel today serves any useful purpose, perhaps it’s as a visual reminder that when granting regulatory breaks, beware of big-talking dreamers bearing big plans.

The developers, TJ Investments — father and son team Thomas and John Dowden — went into bankruptcy. Alpharetta Community Bank of Georgia, which seized the property after the men failed to payoff a $5 million loan, now owns the unfinished Clarion Inn.

In turn, however, the bank is being sued by Cooper Construction Company, which the Dowdens left $1.9 million in the red after failing to pay the firm for all its work. DeLaine DeBruhl, vice president and field operations manager for the Hendersonville-based contractors, declined to comment about the situation here in Sylva, citing the pending litigation.

Court records indicate the case has been stalled since February, when one of the parties involved had a lawyer withdraw as counsel. The two case files at the Jackson County Clerk of Court on the hotel litigation are some six inches thick, including depositions and court motions. But there is not the smallest sign to be found of possible resolution, and in the meantime, finding a new buyer to take over the project seems remote given the lien against the property.

 

Hindsight 20/20?

A tangled, drawn-out court battle over an abandoned building sure wasn’t the economic development the town’s leaders dreamed of when they granted that building height variance to the father-and-son duo.  

“We were so thrilled to be getting a big chain hotel there,” Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley said of the town’s decision four years ago to allow the Clarion Inn a fourth floor instead of holding it to three.

The developers claimed the hotel required a 75-foot maximum height instead of just 45 feet as mandated by town regulations.

Hensley, Stacy Knotts, Ray Lewis and then-commissioner-now-Mayor Maurice Moody voted in favor of the variance; Commissioner Danny Allen missed that meeting and an opportunity to vote yes or no.

On paper, at least, things looked good: plans called for a restaurant, convention room and 78 guest rooms.

Instead the economy crashed, and the hotel never opened. In fact, the hotel was never even finished. Today it’s a hulking, depressing presence on top of a steep cutout bank, with boarded-up windows, a surrounding chain-link fence to deter derelicts, and landscaping consisting of waist-high weeds.

“Obviously it didn’t turn out how it was expected,” Knotts said. “I didn’t envision it would be sitting there vacant. We’ve been waiting a long time for something to happen.”

You do the best you can do at the time, make the best decision that you can, and move forward, Hensley said.

“I don’t know that (it’s particularly useful) to go back and regret anything you’ve done,” he said. “Hindsight is 20/20.”

Chris Matheson, a council member who was not on the board at the time of the variance, said she could sympathize with how the situation must have appeared then.

“Had the economy not taken a turn for the worse, if it had been completed as planned and bought a tremendous amount of revenue and activity to that end of town, we’d look at it through different eyes,” Matheson said. “I don’t think we’d even be having this conversation.”

Hensley said he hopes something changes — positively — in connection with the vacant hotel, located across from Wal-Mart.

Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower said it has proven difficult to get straight answers about the hotel’s future — or determine if it even has one. She spent some time early on trying to track down decision makers.

“When I first got here, there was an investment company that said someone was interested. But I haven’t heard anything since. Something needs to happen, it’s a major eyesore,” Isenhower said.

She said if there isn’t an actual use for the building, perhaps the time has come to consider tearing it down.

The problem is, the town isn’t legally in a position to make that decision. And it would seem that until the court case is resolved, no one — anywhere — can make any meaningful decisions regarding Sylva’s empty Clarion Inn.

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