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St. Louis-based company favored for Blackhawk hotel restoration
Davenport's Blackhawk Hotel served as the Isle of Capri's hotel until a fire destroyed one floor and damaged several others on Feb. 11, 2006, forcing its closure.

Restoration St. Louis — which has built its reputation by renovating older, challenging buildings in some of the Missouri city’s neglected historic areas — is Davenport’s preferred partner for redevelopment of the empty Blackhawk Hotel.

The company began as a small-scale, husband-and-wife operation in 1990, but it has grown to a 100-employee development team that owns and operates more than 1,000 residential apartment units. It was one of three that responded to the city’s request for qualifications in the fall.

Last week, Davenport officials confirmed that Isle of Capri plans to sell the abandoned Blackhawk back to the city for $1. The city then would transfer ownership to a redevelopment partner. Two Davenport aldermen confirmed that Restoration St. Louis is the partner.

With the Isle expressing interest in moving its gaming operations into the 80,000-square-foot RiverCenter South, the type of renovation that would fit best in the historic hotel needs to be determined, City Administrator Craig Malin said.

“The Blackhawk/RiverCenter task force made it clear their first interest in a redeveloped Blackhawk would include some hotel space,” he said. “I don’t anticipate that a redevelopment would be completely dedicated to a hotel; however. I think a mixed-use redevelopment is most likely and most preferable.”

That would work for Restoration St. Louis, said Phil Estep, a development consultant who works on the company’s rehabilitation projects.

In St. Louis, the company restored the long-vacant, 15-story Coronado Hotel, which dates to the turn of the century. It went from an empty shell to a thriving building featuring 64 apartments, a first-floor restaurant and patio cafe, high-end convenience store, fitness center and renovated ballroom that is used for receptions and corporate meetings.

A boutique hotel on some floors of the Blackhawk is also a project that Restoration St. Louis would explore, Estep said.

“We’re trying to respond to what the city needs, and we won’t know that until there’s a clearer picture on future convention needs, number of hotel rooms in the area and other factors,” he said. “We need a clear concept, and, at this time, we’re still waiting for that concept to evolve. But we love the building, and we’re all very excited about its potential.”

If the RiverCenter and its associated attraction of visitors to larger-scale shows and conventions is out of the picture, that must be factored in, Malin said.

A 2004 study conducted for the city by HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment Facilities Consulting of Chicago, indicated the need for 200 more hotel rooms to maximize the convention potential of the RiverCenter. Malin said at the time that it was clear the city had over-built its convention space without the hotel capacity to serve it.

“Now, the balance will be, if the south side of the RiverCenter is converted to gaming operations, are we now under-built in the market for conventions?” he said. “That is something we will ask HVS to look at. The question is: Should we expand the north side of the RiverCenter if the south side is no longer used?”

Any expansion would have to make economic sense and tie in with the Isle’s plans, Malin said.

“We certainly don’t want to over-expand,” he said. “No one wants to spend taxpayer money on useless stuff. The city needs to make prudent investments to build economic activity.”

Alderman Shawn Hamerlinck, 2nd Ward, said he is impressed with Restoration St. Louis’ track record,  but he needs to be certain the city will not get stuck owning the aging hotel.

“Realistically, the Blackhawk is expected to cost $25 million to rehabilitate, and that’s not something the taxpayers should be asked to pay for in any way,” he said. “I would not rule out economic incentives, but I don’t want the city to own it. The city’s not a developer.”

Malin agreed.

“Shawn is not alone in his concern about the city owning the Blackhawk,” he said, adding that the $1 sale is meant to be a pass-through deal only. “The city is not in the hotel business. It’s never been our intent to own it or be the developer. We’re just the coordinator.”

Malin said negotiations with the Isle will continue this week, and he’s hoping to have a document spelling out the company’s intentions in the near future.

“I expect that the city will make it clear to the Isle of Capri that their prompt release of the Blackhawk Hotel to a qualified redeveloper is something the city has a strong interest in,” he said.

Malin noted that Restoration St. Louis executives have been in Davenport several times and toured the Blackhawk.

“They did not appear intimidated by the challenges,” he said. “In fact, they saw opportunities where others saw challenges.”

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

ABOUT THE COMPANY

Restoration St. Louis was born in 1990 when husband-and-wife team Amrit and Amy Gill bought a dilapidated three-family apartment structure in midtown St. Louis and renovated it.

Since then, the Gills have helped restore dozens of buildings in older, formerly upscale areas and some of St. Louis’ toughest census tracts.

The company recently completed the renovation of the 15-story Coronado Hotel in midtown St. Louis. In addition, the company has purchased more than 60 properties — most of them abandoned commercial buildings and vacant lots — that it is rehabbing in the city’s Forest Park area.

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