Story and photos by Karen Carr Keefe
Developer Jayesh R. Patel is on the threshold of turning the long-vacant Dunlop building into a vibrant, new hotel on the north end of Grand Island.
Crews are putting the finishing touches on the interior of the new 105-room Holiday Inn Express at 2761 Long Road. The target opening date is May 17.
For Patel, CEO of Rudra Management, it has been a five-year, $8.5 million process of overcoming obstacles to achieve his vision. His family business owns 43 hotels, with three more in the development stage. The Grand Island hotel occupies a 72,000-square-foot former office building, set on a 28.8-acre site. Landscaping is the next step to complete the picture. The hiring process for staff will begin within the week. Meanwhile, underground, work is finally underway to connect the hotel to an existing sewer system.
Patel said he has been heavily involved in all the planning and design stages of the project. "Every single thing that you see out there, whether it's exterior finish, the roof line, it's personal input." Architect John Bennett of Buffalo was chosen because of his creativity in bringing the hotel from design to reality.
Amenities for Tourists and Families
The hotel has three floors of rooms. First-floor amenities include a breakfast bar, two meeting rooms and a business center, all off the large lobby. There also is an indoor pool and a fitness room. Within 90 days of opening, Patel expects to have a rooftop lounge completed for guests. He said that the lounge will be a great addition for both the tourist and the corporate traveler. "That would be a really cool place for them to relax and hang out," he said.
Patel said his new hotel's location along the Thruway makes it easily accessible not only to Grand Island, but also Tonawanda and Niagara Falls. Business travelers, families and tourists are all potential customers, he said.
He also wants Holiday Inn Express to be a gathering place for Grand Island events, such as weddings and reunions. "Why not a hotel for the Islanders?" Patel asks. If the new hotel does well, there's also the possibility of building a second hotel on the property.
Since 1993, when the Dunlop Corp. pulled out of its former headquarters, Islanders, commuters and tourists have lamented that a graffiti-tagged and deteriorating eyesore was the first landmark they saw while entering or leaving Grand Island via the north bridges. Few would have imagined reinventing this detraction into an attraction. But Patel saw the possibilities that others did not.
Establishing a Brand
"What interested me is we have a hotel in Niagara Falls; we also have a hotel in Buffalo and every time, driving on the 190, I kept thinking about it, why not this building to convert into a hotel?" he asked. "After two, three years of staring at the building, periodically, we decided to do the walk-through. And it was a sudden decision then, I said, 'I think this can be a good hotel location if we get the right brand,' and that was the beginning of it."
About three years ago, when the planning stage was complete, Patel settled on the Holiday Inn Express as the hotel brand. He said the original condition of the building was not discouraging to him. "We have several hotels, but I don't consider myself a big player who can tackle this kind of big project," he said.
"We knew it would be a challenging project - it won't be a walk in the park, easy project, but what's the fun in a business if you don't take challenges?" he asked. "We rolled with it."
Patel said the company had major, unexpected expenses in doing the first-floor modification, including demolition of exterior walls. "It took us almost four, five months to come up with a design that would convert the office building into a hotel." He said it was tough to accomplish while incorporating the HVAC system they had to use. The company went through several design options in rough sketches, before achieving the look they wanted of a luxury hotel. The windows, while fairly narrow, are continuous, a distinct design feature they used to their advantage. "It was a bit of a challenge to come up with and create the look that really brings the 'wow' factor," Patel said.
Patel, 46, got into the hotel business when he was 21, and at age 25, he bought his first hotel. "When you're on your own, trying to build your life, you learn a lot of things real fast, and that's what happened to me," he said.
He came to the United States from India in 1992. "Within three years, I had to adapt (to) the culture ... the way of doing business here," he said. He learned a lot from his uncles and other family members who were already in the hotel business here. "They supported me right along the line as I bought my first hotel." Patel's brother, Raj, is in charge of construction and renovations in the company.
Patel and his wife, Shilpa, live in Orchard Park. They have three sons, Vasu, 21; Viru, 19; and Kabir, 17. The oldest two sons, both college students, are already working in the business.
Overcoming Challenging Obstacles
In 2013 when the Grand Island project began, Patel thought it would take about three years. But after the company purchased the former Dunlop building, they found out it was a big challenge to arrange financing for the renovation due to a number of built-in problems. "No bank wanted to touch it until we cleaned up the asbestos," he said. Banks were also reluctant once they learned how long the building had been sitting empty. "So that kind of dragged this whole process down, slowed us down quite a bit," he said. "After going through about half a dozen banks, finally we got the project rolling." The financing was arranged through D.A. Capital of New York City, a company Patel said is willing to take on challenging projects.
A Restore New York grant of $1 million was obtained to do the asbestos abatement, the only public funds used in the project. But Patel is still waiting for those funds to be released. "That was one of the biggest struggles because we were hoping to have that money to us over a year ago." Rudra Management funded the asbestos removal directly, plus coming up with additional money as equity to begin the project. The rest of the funding came from the bank. "So, at the end of the project, we struggled because we were hoping to have a grant funded a long time ago," he said.
Patel said his company's difficulty in tying into a sewer system was the next big challenge, causing at least a four-month delay in the timetable for opening the hotel. The company started the process in April 2017, but just started construction of the sewer system a little over a week ago. Construction consists of laying pipe through an existing "sleeve," going under the Thruway at Bedell Road.
Patel Thanks Town Officials
Despite the setbacks and delays, Patel says he is extremely grateful for cooperation from town officials. "Every step of the way, they're always there to help us, especially the town supervisor." Patel said the town put together a team of engineers and building inspectors to help the company work through the challenges they encountered.
Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray said the town overcame some obstacles of its own to help Patel achieve his dream. "I can tell you that personally I've done everything in my power to help them that I could within the scope of my role as supervisor - and it wasn't easy. I hope they hit their goal," McMurray said.
McMurray said he knew the hotel project was stalled over the lack of a sewer system, so he went to Bill Huntress of neighboring Acquest Development to help solve the problem. The two companies made a deal to work out the cost of building the public infrastructure, the town voted its approval, and the companies agreed that once it was built, they would donate the sewer system to the town.
The Town Board also approved a local law that lets businesses that expand and improve a property to exempt, for 10 years, a portion of the added assessment that stems from those enhancements. The Holiday Inn Express will be eligible for this initially for a trial period of three years and potentially for the full 10. Patel said the town passed this measure after his company began the renovations and found they were over budget. "We really are thankful for that (law), and that is one of the reasons we are enticed to do a second hotel, if (the first) is the success we're expecting. As a developer, we are very committed to Grand Island. This one project is just a start, and then we can do more."
Patel said that despite the hardships in bringing the hotel to fruition, he looks at the project in a positive light and is grateful for the town's help and full support along the way. "The project has a lot of frustrating moments, a lot of delay, but at the end, everything is working out, so I just want to thank them all."
Hotel Opening 'A Great Sign for Grand Island'
McMurray said he'd made a campaign promise to Patel to help bring the building back to life. "I feel a great sense of personal achievement at seeing it open," McMurray said. "That building was not just an eyesore, it was a danger," he said. "To have it open and to look so good, it's a great sign for Grand Island. And because of that project, we now have other projects ... other people looking at the Island for all kinds of positive developments. Not apartments, not sprawl, but things that will add to our town."
"Grand Island is becoming a place for tourism, a place for recreation, a place that people want to visit and be a part of and see. And that's a very good thing."
Patel said before he got involved in the hotel project, there was a lot of talk in the town, with a lot of people asking why no one was doing anything with the Dunlop building. "It was sitting empty for 20 years. That's a good long time. It's time for a building to get demolished at that point, rather than thinking about the crazy idea of adaptive reuse," Patel said. "I'm glad we stepped up to it, and we're this close now to open that hotel. It makes me feel really great, very proud. I can't wait till I open the door."
Those interested in employment at the Grand Island Holiday Inn Express may contact the hotel at the email: [email protected]