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Bold plans, big future unveiled for Blackhawk Hotel
Amrit and Amy Gill of Restoration St. Louis toured the Blackhawk Hotel to begin the first steps for its restoration Wednesday in downtown Davenport.

No one can accuse Amrit and Amy Gill — the husband and wife team behind Restoration St. Louis — of looking on Davenport as a small-time town.

If the pair’s ambitious plans for the re-development of the vacant Blackhawk Hotel turn out as planned, the aging icon could soon be the premier property of the entire metro area.

“It will be a project like you’d see in Manhattan or downtown Chicago,” Amrit Gill said. “It will be something unlike anything seen before in Davenport or the Quad-Cities.”

The couple wowed Davenport aldermen at Wednesday night’s council meeting with pictures of other projects and glimpses of what they intend to do with the Blackhawk.

A 100 to 105 room “boutique” hotel, a Gold Room restored to its past elegance, three floors with 30 high-end luxury apartments, a restored lobby, open atrium and first floor bar, and conference rooms, fitness center and spa facilities to complement the city-owned RiverCenter are all in the plans.

Two or three boutique hotel chains have expressed interest in the Blackhawk and the Gills have narrowed their choice of final architects down to four.

The architects they are considering will also be asked to radically alter the current configuration of the building.

Amy Gill said the east, U-shaped section of the building is the natural “front door” and wants to move the main entrance off the four-lanes of traffic on Third Street.

In addition, the couple would like to see rooftop green space, a garden terrace in the open area between the north and south wings, solar panels on the roof, and utilize wind turbines to provide “green” power.

Amrit Gill said the company will seek LEED — or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — certification for the building.

The Gills have promised to invest $21.5 million in the project through traditional bank financing. In addition, the city will chip in with $4.45 million in Tax Increment Financing and the state has promised $8.5 million in historic preservation tax credits, bringing the total project investment to more than $35 million.

“Clearly, this is a good deal for taxpayers,” said 2nd Ward Alderman Shawn Hamerlinck, who noted the proposed economic development agreement calls for a guaranteed minimum assessment on the property of $12 million. Currently, the property — which is owned by Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. — is assessed at only $1.7 million.

But more than the financial details, aldermen seemed thrilled by the potential impact a healthy, thriving Blackhawk could have on what has been a dark and mostly empty corner of Davenport’s downtown since fire broke out inside the hotel in 2006.

“This is a very, very important project for the city of Davenport,” said 7th Ward Alderman Barney Barnhill. “My generation gets nostalgic when you mention the Gold Room and the Blackhawk. This is an opportunity to bring it back to its glory and grandeur.”

Alderman Ian Frink, at-large, said the potential impact on the RiverCenter — which had to turn away more than $1 million worth of bookings due to lack of nearby hotel space in the last year alone — makes the deal a winner.

“Restoration St. Louis has a proven track record and the city is very fortunate to have a group like this working with it,” he said.

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The Gills are anxious to get to work. The city council’s Finance Committee will be asked to review the development agreement at its meeting next week, with a hoped-for final approval vote by the full council on Oct. 22.

Transfer of the Blackhawk from current owner Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. to Restoration St. Louis is to occur within 10 days of approval of the development agreement.

Amrit Gill said he’d like to see construction start in six to seven months, with some site preparation and demolition beginning prior to that. The targeted opening date is spring 2010, he said.

Touring through the abandoned building earlier Wednesday afternoon, Gill said it’s actually in pretty good shape compared to many of the historical renovations the company has taken on in Missouri.

“It has great bones,” he said. “Thank goodness they were just covered up and not destroyed.”

Project not hurt by economy

Although the economy is in turmoil and credit is tight all over, Amrit Gill said financing the ambitious Blackhawk Hotel renovation project isn’t a concern.

“As of right now, it’s not an issue,” he said. “The timing is still reasonably good.”

His wife and business partner, Amy, credits her husband’s prescience for allowing Restoration St. Louis to be in the position of pursuing projects while other development companies are in panic mode.

“I’m very lucky to be married to a guy who predicted (the sub-prime lending and credit crisis) three years ago,” Amy Gill said.

Amrit Gill said it was then that he began paying down debt and reining in spending, anticipating a bumpy economic situation in the coming years.

Having good credit will allow the company to invest $21.5 million in the Blackhawk project with conventional bank financing.

The company has already secured $8.5 million in historic preservation tax credits from the State of Iowa for the project. The city incentives include $4.45 million of tax-increment financing, which will be repaid within 20 years, based on the value of new investment by Restoration St. Louis. The proposed economic development agreement includes a guaranteed $12 million minimum assessment on the building and adjacent properties that are currently assessed at $1.7 million.

Gill is bullish on downtown Davenport’s prospects, and said he may come up with a proposal to renovate the long-vacant Forrest Block property that sits just behind the Blackhawk at the corner of Fourth and Brady streets.

Tory Brecht can be contacted at (563) 383-2329 or tbrecht@qctimes.com. Comment on this story at qctimes.com.

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