‘Reconsidering all options’: City mulls future of downtown hotel conference center project

Photo provided A 10-story hotel and conference center is envisioned next to the historic Crump Theatre in one concept being considered in the Envision Columbus strategic planning process for Third Street in downtown Columbus. The hotel lobby and conference center would be on floors 1-3, with rooms on floors 4-10. Architect’s rendering from Strategic Columbus working plan.

City officials say they are “reconsidering all options” for a project aimed at building a hotel conference center in downtown Columbus that has largely been stuck in a holding pattern since the city and a developer mutually agreed to part ways last year.

The project, initially proposed in 2018 following the demolition of the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center on the city’s west side, a market analysis by consultant Hunden Strategic Partners and the Envision Columbus downtown development strategic plan, seeks to build a new hotel conference center with roughly 140 guest rooms, a 9,000-square-foot ballroom and other meeting spaces in downtown Columbus.

However, the project has faced a series of setbacks in recent years amid rising construction costs and a pandemic that severely hobbled the hospitality industry. And now, several months after demolishing a property that the city had acquired in 2022 to build the hotel conference center, officials say they are reconsidering several aspects of the project — including its location.

“We’re just reconsidering all options post-pandemic — the ideal location, ideal sizing and are there opportunities that we could also use to incorporate other elements in the downtown hotel conference center that also help us as we are trying to activate our downtown,” said Columbus Redevelopment Director Heather Pope.

The current proposed site for the hotel conference center is the block surrounded by Second, Franklin, Third and Lafayette streets in downtown, which the redevelopment commission acquired through a property-swap agreement with the county in 2022.

Under the agreement, the commission took ownership of the block, which previously housed the Bartholomew County Court Services building, and agreed to contribute $1.5 million to the construction of a new court services building south of the Bartholomew County Jail.

The city later demolished the former court services building to make way for the hotel conference center around the time that the city and Sprague Hotel Developers — the company that was selected in 2019 to spearhead efforts to make the hotel conference center a reality — parted ways after being unable to come to mutually acceptable terms on the project.

Since then, city officials have been in “ongoing discussions” over the future of the project and may wind up looking elsewhere in downtown to move forward. Pope said that city officials have learned that another property downtown may be placed on the market in the coming weeks that could be a better location for the hotel conference center.

City officials declined to reveal the location of the downtown property they expect to be put up for sale.

“There is now an opportunity that another property that we’ve heard of will be available downtown, and maybe that’s a better location,” Pope said. “…There may be other opportunities because of the location of this property that we don’t have at the original location that we had identified, and it’s those other opportunities that have intrigued us because you can kind of get more bang for your buck as far as activation and revitalization in our downtown.”

If the undisclosed property ends up being placed on the market, the Columbus Redevelopment Commission would “need to make a decision on whether we want to move forward with either purchasing the property or partnering with someone on the property,” Pope said.

“I would anticipate within the next month that (the property) would be for sure available,” she said.

Should the commission decide to pursue a new location for the project, officials said they have not yet determined what they would plan to do with the current site that was acquired in the land-swap agreement with the county, as they are “still very much in the preliminary discussion/planning phase.”

A new location for the proposed downtown hotel conference center would be the latest turn of events in a project that has been in the works since the Clarion Hotel and Conference, 2480 W. Jonathan Moore Pike, closed in 2017.

The Clarion’s conference center had a 1,000-person capacity and hosted the community’s largest indoor gatherings — including business conferences, non-profit fundraisers and wedding receptions — until its owners defaulted on their debt and the 11.5-acre property was sold to Columbus Regional Health during a foreclosure sale in 2017.

With 253 guest rooms, the Clarion was the largest hotel and banquet facility in Columbus, representing nearly 17% of the community’s hotel capacity when it permanently shut its doors. CRH later demolished the hotel conference center.

While city officials are tight-lipped about what potential new locations for the downtown hotel conference center they are considering, a 2018 study by Hunden Strategic Partners identified four possible locations, The Republic reported at the time.

Two of those locations included the properties that the redevelopment commission acquired in the land-swap deal with the county and the current site of The Taylor apartments just east of the jail on Second Street.

The other two locations were the Columbus Post Office, 450 Jackson St., and the Crump Theatre, 425 Third St. Both of those properties have ties to the Columbus Capital Foundation.

The downtown post office property was acquired for around $1.16 million by 450 Jackson Street LLC, a holding company with ties to the Columbus Capital Foundation.

While many unanswered questions remain, only time will tell how the project will evolve as officials continue discussions on the future of the project and what they believe will be the best approach moving forward.

“There really has not been any movement on the hotel conference center just simply because of the cost and then some properties that weren’t available previously (will now be) available, and just some reconsideration of trying to find the right location,” Pope said. “We want to make sure we do this right.“