Hotel a tombstone for WNC’s once booming real estate industry
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.
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.