Come on inn: New hotels rising in Chippewa Valley

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The Staybridge Suites hotel under construction in Altoona s River Prairie development along U.S.

53 was bursting with activity early Friday afternoon. Two workers hauled construction equipment from a trailer parked outside the complex near a Kwik Trip convenience store. Nearby, two other men donning hard hats lugged toolboxes toward the hotel, built as part of IHG, the parent company of Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn. Inside the building, more workers hung sheetrock, assembled ductwork and framed windows and doors in the hotel being built by Larson Cos.

of Eau Claire scheduled to open in June. Many of the kitchens that will be in each of the hotel s 135 rooms are installed. Just up the highway the scene was similar as work continues on the 90-room Fairfield Inn & Suites, part of the Marriott chain, being developed by Eau Claire developer Haselwander Cos. set to open next month. Work also is progressing on two downtown Eau Claire hotels, the 112-room The Lismore, to open this spring, and the 30-room The Oxbow Hotel, to open its doors this summer. And plans call for a 45-room Cobblestone Hotel & Suites to open in downtown Chippewa Falls in August.

All five are scheduled to open this year, adding 412 rooms combined to the existing regional hotel market that already numbers more than 2,000 rooms just in Eau Claire. That jump in the number of area hotel rooms is by far the biggest that hasoccurred in any one year since 1995. The previous largest increase from one year to the next was in 2007, when 243 rooms were added from the previous year with the addition of the Metropolis Resort & Conference Center on Eau Claire s south side and the Sleep Inn & Suites Conference Center, northwest of Eau Claire along Highway 29 in the Chippewa County town of Wheaton.

We certainly are seeing a hotel building boom, said Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, which promotes tourism in the region. The significant uptick in hotel room construction is a sign of growing interest in people spending time in Eau Claire and the surrounding area, John said. From the region s multiple, well-attended music festivals to the growing number of tourism opportunities in Eau Claire and surrounding cities to the local natural beauty, more people are attracted to spending time in the Chippewa Valley, she said.

The tourism industry is growing quickly in the Eau Claire area, she said.

The city of Eau Claire s economic development administrator, Mike Schatz, agreed, saying a growing number of events and other activities in Eau Claire and surrounding cities are prompting the unprecedented hotel building boom.

There are more amenities and activities bringing people to this area, Schatz said, noting the region s bustling music scene that boasts five major summer music festivals Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, Rock Fest, Country Fest, Country Jam USA and Blue Ox Music Festival. There are more events going on, more restaurants to eat at, more places to see. The new hotels being built are a sign of all of that.

Location key

Eau Claire and surrounding communities are easily accessible by tourists, thanks to the city s location along Interstate 94 and U.S.

53 as well as the nearby Highway 29. The opening of the heavily traveled U.S.

53 has prompted development along the highway that includes Staybridge Suites, Fairfield Inn & Suites and other hotels farther north. Larson Cos. President Tom Larson and Greg Haselwander, vice president of sales and marketing for Haselwander Cos., which is building the Fairfield Inn hotel as part of the Princeton Crossing development, said the location along U.S.

53 was a major factor in their decisions.

Hotels along major roadways tend to perform very well, Larson said.

Haselwander said U.S.

53 is a major gateway to the Eau Claire area.

This bypass is really the next main street for this region, and the city of Eau Claire is growing out to that road, he said. Unlike many cities, downtown Eau Claire isn t located along or near a major highway, seemingly making building a hotel there a more risky proposition. But the revitalization of the city s center in recent years and the anticipated opening in 2018 of a community performing arts center at the merger of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers gives developers of the Lismore and Oxbow hotels hope that their businesses can prosper. JAMF Software co-founder Zach Halmstad, an investor in Pablo Properties that is turning the former Ramada Convention Center into The Lismore, has spoken of his desire to have the hotel s renovation help spur downtown redevelopment. Ditto for the ownership group transforming the former Green Tree Hotel & Suites into The Oxbow Hotel that includes Volume One magazine publisher Nick Meyer and Grammy Award-winning musician Justin Vernon, as well as Halmstad.

Those developers are attempting to turn what were dilapidated, troubled hotels into high-quality establishments. Builders of both properties say they are optimistic that growing downtown activity will make their ventures a success.

There is so much happening downtown that we think we can make this work, Meyer said.

Stepping up

The new hotels mark a significant upgrade in the quality of guest rooms available in the region. From the extended stay kitchens included in the Staybridge project to the high-quality rooms at the Fairfield to the upper-end amenities at The Lismore to the Eau Claire experience vibe that will be exuded at The Oxbow, developers are striving to offer visitors high-quality experiences.

Many of today s travelers are looking for different amenities, such as ample room size, fitness facilities, space to socialize, even modern lighting, Larson said. For proof, Larson said, he needed to look no further than the Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn Eau Claire South hotel his company opened along Interstate 94 near Oakwood Mall three years ago. The hotel, which offers high-quality amenities and features a Johnny s Italian Steakhouse, has performed extremely well, he said.

There was a long period of time with not much in the way of nice hotels being built in Eau Claire, Larson said.

We think there is a real need for nicer hotels in Eau Claire. That s why you re seeing some of them being built now. Haselwander agreed, saying the new hotels will fill a demand for nicer hotel amenities.

Some of the hotel inventory here is old and dated, and we believe there is a yearning by many customers for something new, said Haselwander, whose company also owns and operates the AmericInn Hotel & Suites in Eau Claire. Meyer said Eau Claire has room for hotels that offer unique experiences that go beyond simply staying in a room.

When we announced plans to do this project (The Oxbow Hotel), we were asked, With more than 2,000 rooms already in Eau Claire, why are these 30 rooms you re doing going to matter? Meyer said.

We re interested in offering the people who stay with us a sense of place, a sense of the outdoors, a sense of the local music and arts scenes, a sense of quality local food, and we think that will fill a niche in our market.

Impact questioned

It remains to be seen how the addition of more than 400 rooms will affect the rest of the local hotel market and whether there will be enough business to support existing and new hotels. John and others say they re optimistic growing tourism in the region means enough business for all. She pointed to increasing hotel room occupancy rates, which have mostly grown since 2007, when that figure was 46.7 percent, to 2014, the last year for which that statistic is available, when it was 56.1 percent, as evidence more people are staying in hotels. While new hotels could shift some business from existing hotels, not everyone will be able to or willing to pay for those hotel experiences, she said. In addition, the new hotels may force others to upgrade to stay competitive.

Based on the recent steady growth of the tourism economy in the area, along with a positive outlook on tourism nationally and statewide, I believe the market is ready for these additional hotel developments, John said.

Schatz and others familiar with the local hotel scene called the diversity among the region s hotels with the addition of newer ones a good thing and said some older hotels may have to adapt to the new market. Older hotels in need of a face-lift may have to modernize to stay in business, they said.

Some of the existing hotels may have to make some changes to stay viable, Schatz said. However the regional scene shakes out, developers of the new projects say the addition of more hotels is a sign of its growing attraction in the eyes of others.

Whether or not the market can support this, we will find that out, Meyer said.

But the momentum in this community right now is significant.

It s an exciting time to be here.

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