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Ask Matt ... about the right site for a hotel

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A boutique hotel? After hearing from the UNC consulting group supporting a 130-room “boutique” hotel on the Grey Hosiery Mill site, I started thinking like the old planning hack I was some years ago. The mill site is a two-block uphill hike to Main Street and you have to cross the King Street “Interceptor.” There is little room for a streetscape. Hotel guests would look down on a jail, an impound lot, warehouses and the back side of buildings. Not stuff that spells boutique.

Let’s be fair. We all know that location drives real estate but there is new thinking out now that says “invest in what’s hot.” But just how hot is the neighborhood between North Grove and the railroad tracks and if it’s not hot, can the city light the fire?
To support their claim that a boutique hotel could make it on the Mill site the consultants looked at four towns they deemed comparable. So with the super powers afforded me by Google Maps, I swooped down on each town to see for myself.
Staunton, Va., has a nice downtown with narrow streets. The majestic Stonewall Jackson Hotel has 124 rooms and a conference center. It’s two blocks from a commercial strip and two blocks from Mary Baldwin University. No busy streets to cross.
Beaufort, S.C., is a dandy little historic town on the Harbor River. They have a few B&Bs on palmetto-lined streets and a 43-room chain hotel across from a marina plus a smaller hotel billed as “romantic.”
Blowing Rock is a charming old mountainside resort town with a dozen small inns and B&Bs in walking distance from shops and eateries. Nice town but it feels more like Saluda than Hendersonville, without the railroad.
New Bern has a downtown “area” not a strip. The two upscale hotels combine for 169 rooms and overlook the waterfront where boaters can dock. In between is a convention center and two blocks away is the historic Tryon Palace, a big tourist attraction.
The consultants looked at four hot spots and concluded that since downtown room rates were significantly higher than at their counterpart highway hotels, a 130-room hotel on the Mill site could make it. I’m not buying that. Not without a river, a marina, a college, or a tree-lined mountain top. And let’s not kid ourselves, our Mill building neighborhood is anything but romantic. Anyone who books rooms online can hit the map button and see.
Yet we do need downtown accommodations. The best sites with the best views should be between King and Church — not at the bottom of the hill. I easily found four suitable locations all fronting on Main Street. Sure, they would have to combine some properties or remove some buildings but isn’t that exactly what Publix just did? Do we really need 130 rooms? The Inn on Church does well with its 21.
Finally, what to do with the Mill building? Bulldoze it. The highest and best use of the square block is an arts and residential district. Craft a smart plan for neighborhood revitalization and link it to Seventh Avenue. Then and only then will the area catch fire.

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Following 10 years in the city manager profession, Matt Matteson served as Henderson County's planning director from 1989 to 1999. He holds a certificate from the American Institute of Certified Planners.