With tax incentives OK’d, a 29-story downtown Salt Lake City convention hotel is a go — again

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Crowds gathered at the annual Comic Con at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. Officials announced Tuesday they had approved a $75 million package of tax incentives for two private companies to build a new 29-story convention hotel with up to 750 rooms on southeast corner of the Salt Palace property, at 200 S. West Temple.

Officials have approved a package of tax incentives for private developers that clears the way for construction of a towering convention hotel in the heart of Salt Lake City.

After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, state, county and economic-development officials voted Tuesday in support of up to $75 million in post-performance tax rebates for private firms Portman Holdings and DDRM over 20 years, in exchange for constructing a 29-story hotel with up to 750 rooms, expansive meeting spaces and a grand ballroom.

“It’s been the little-big hotel that could,” said Scott Beck, president and CEO for Visit Salt Lake, leader of Salt Lake County’s efforts to attract tourism and conventions.

The $337 million hotel is slated to rise on the southeast corner of the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Lake Palace Convention Center on 200 S. West Temple, officials said. Groundbreaking is now planned for fall 2019, they said, and the hotel is scheduled to open in spring 2022.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The RootsTech Conference the Salt Palace Convention Center, as seen in February 2018. Studies indicate a new convention hotel could bring as much as $45 million in yearly visitor spending to the state's economy.

After protracted talks in recent months said to focus on the hotel’s exact location, the final package of sales and property tax rebates was approved Tuesday morning in a unanimous vote by board members of Gov. Gary Herbert’s Office of Economic Development.

“Today was the culmination of a decade or longer of work trying to put together a really meaningful convention hotel project in Salt Lake City,” said Ben Hart, GOED’s deputy director.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski welcomed the announcement, calling the hotel “a needed amenity in our city.”

“The proposed hotel will allow Salt Lake to attract larger conventions and future national and international events, furthering our place as a worldwide destination,” Biskupski said.

Though it has met opposition from some smaller hotel operators, multiple studies over the years have highlighted the economic potential of a sizable downtown hotel with large blocks of rooms and expansive meeting places — not least, according to Beck, as a way to maximize economic gains from the Salt Palace.

“This hotel,” Beck said, “is focused on ensuring the long-term viability of the convention center,” which he noted now operates at about 55 percent of its capacity.

The city tweaked its zoning ordinances two years ago to allow high rises up to 375 feet high in that portion of its central business district, in anticipation of the hotel project.

In addition to its 700-plus rooms and lavish amenities, the new hotel will include a 25,000-square-foot grand ballroom — considered essential for accommodating conventioneers — along with a 14,000-square-foot junior ballroom, a total of 62,000 square feet of meeting spaces and outdoor rooftop amenities.

Beck and Val Hale, executive director of GOED, said the hotel would allow Utah’s capital city to compete in new markets for the world’s biggest convention gatherings, with the potential to bring up to $45 million yearly in new direct visitor spending.

The city’s boosters have long proposed bringing such a hotel to Utah’s urban core, and studies in 2004 and 2008 documented the idea’s potential. Government officials formalized the contours of a public-private partnership to build the hotel in 2013, and two years later, the Utah Legislature approved the structure of tax incentives.

In 2015, Utah officials abandoned a prior deal to build a hotel with Dallas-based Omni Hotels & Resorts after several sticking points emerged over public financing for the project. A second request for bids went out in 2016.

Hart said lengthy attempts to assemble property for building the hotel somewhere adjacent to the Salt Palace, as earlier planned, were unsuccessful, with talks hampered by the death in October 2017 of prominent downtown real estate executive Vasilios Priskos, who was deeply involved in the project.

Building the hotel on the southeast corner of the existing Salt Palace property, Hart said, will bring some disruption to less-used areas of the convention center, but won’t lead to the closure of exhibit spaces.

The completed hotel will then be fully connected to the convention center, he said.

GOED said that hotel owners DDRM, based outside St. George, would partner with Portman Holdings and a newly formed limited liability corporation called Salt Lake City CH (convention hotel) in a joint venture to build the high-rise hotel, along with other design, construction and operating partners.

The tax incentives approved Tuesday involve special state sales and property tax rebates to be awarded after the hotel is built and operating — including conveying the land on the Salt Palace site from its current owner, Salt Lake County, to the hotel partners.

GOED estimated the incentives will add $281 million in capital investment over 20 years.

Beck, with Visit Salt Lake, said that because of the size and complexity of such projects, taxpayer subsidies were a typical feature in getting convention hotels built in most U.S. cities that have them.

“It’s very rare that a hotel in the U.S. of this size — outside of New York City or Las Vegas — gets built without some private-public partnership. They all have a form of public engagement.”

Ambrish Baisiwala, CEO of Atlanta-based hotel developer Portman Holdings, said the global company found Salt Lake City “to be both business-friendly and a strong destination market,” with special praise for the proximity of Salt Lake International Airport and recreation opportunities.

“We hope this will be the first of many projects we undertake in this market,” Baisiwala said in a statement.

The CEO of DDRM Companies, headquartered in Ivins, praised Utah’s decision to involve Portman in the project, given its industry prominence, “hotel experience, creativity and financial resources.” DDRM’s Stan Castleton said Portman “will help us create something that will make the entire state of Utah proud.”