Hotel Site Downtown 07.jpg

Ashley Turner from Backyard Gardner plants fall flowers as construction of the downtown hotel and conference center continues in the backround.

The hotel and conference center project planned for downtown Kokomo has again received a new developer, public officials announced Thursday.

Envoy Companies, led by Scott Baldwin and John Barbee, has signed on to develop the hotel and conference center, along with a four-story parking garage slated to be built across Superior Street from the project.

Envoy is the third developer to be publicly attached to the large-scale, multi-million-dollar development since its initial announcement in July 2018.

The project’s partners, however, have maintained an air of positivity, saying Envoy – which developed downtown’s existing parking garage and its top-floor apartments, The Lofts at Union Street – will be the one to move it toward completion.

That optimism will be put to the test in coming months as residents deal with another timeline delay that stretches the complex project and its web of partners into what will be the first two years of a new city administration.

“We know quite well the quality developments Envoy has produced – it is right in front of us in downtown Kokomo,” said Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight in a media release.

“The company’s success in Indiana is indicative of what Envoy can do and how they are committed to the communities they invest in. We are confident the project will be in good hands.”

While Goodnight has said ground will be broken this year on the parking garage, the city announced construction on the hotel and conference center will begin in spring 2020.

The hotel and conference center – going in the block between Main and Union streets, bordered by Superior Street to the north and Wildcat Creek to the south – is now expected to open in December 2021; that date is a delay from its original anticipated opening date of spring 2020.

The hotel will still be a six-story Hilton Garden Inn, with 110 rooms. The hotel was originally planned to have 123 rooms.

While a new rendering was not available Thursday, officials confirmed the 22,000-square-foot conference center will still adjoin the hotel. Included in the conference center will be the Kokomo Automotive Museum.

“The lower level will be built for the automobile museum and then they will do a capital campaign to finish it out as previously agreed upon,” said Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman.

Baldwin, a developer with Envoy, said because the company has already worked inside downtown it knows “what the city is capable of.”

“Kokomo is exactly the kind of city we want to invest in and help grow. Mayor Goodnight and local leaders are committed to the project and we are excited to be part of it,” Baldwin said.

“This project will transform our community and further the city’s growth,” added Wyman in a statement.

The city’s announcement came less than an hour after the Howard County Conventions, Visitors and Tourism Commission and the nonprofit Howard County Convention and Visitors Commission (commonly known as the CVB) voted to approve a development agreement with Envoy.

The Kokomo Economic Development Commission also met Thursday morning to sign a development agreement, while the Kokomo Redevelopment Commission is scheduled to meet Friday afternoon.

They are both listed, along with the city of Kokomo and its Community Development Corporation, in the development agreement.

“Our goal is to make Kokomo a place where people want to visit and conduct business,” said Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau board president Kirk Daniels.

“Having a hotel and conference center of this quality will reinforce our place as a premier destination in Indiana both for business and personal visitors.”

The update comes as development of the project was given the all-clear last month by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which determined chemicals and other contaminants found at the site don’t pose a health threat.

An environmental study, commissioned by the city and completed in February 2018, found levels of more than a dozen compounds and substances in the soil and groundwater that are above the approved limits set by IDEM.

The state in March issued a letter to the Kokomo CDC declaring the contamination does not present a threat to human health or the environment on the 1.6 acres on which the conference center will be constructed.

IDEM issued a second letter last month clearing the final 0.6 acres on the south end of the property on which a parking lot will be built.

City officials have now signed a covenant on the entire project site agreeing not to use or extract the groundwater for any purpose, including human or animal consumption, gardening, industrial processes or agriculture, without approval from IDEM.

Financing plan

Still in flux is the exact spending plan for the hotel and conference center.

While the city has committed to spending roughly $6.5 million in cash on the four-level parking garage – planned to have around 180 spaces and 2,400 square feet of retail space on the first floor – other financing remains up in the air.

Officials indicated Thursday that spending particulars will likely emerge in coming weeks, while closing documents are expected to be signed in December.

The project, excluding the garage, has been priced at an estimated $29 million, although exactly how costs will be split, along with the possibility for change, remain unknown.

GKEDA CEO and President Charlie Sparks said Thursday the conference center is expected to cost roughly $11.3 million.

He noted the CVB – which is also slated to pay a consultant, Veridus Group, up to $170,000 – is in for around $8 million, part of which is expected to be a $3.75 million loan from the city.

The remaining costs, he said, will be a combination of city and county funds.

In conjunction, the Howard County Council in June approved a 3% raise, from 5-8%, to the county’s innkeeper’s tax. New revenue generated by the raise will help fund the CVB’s portion of the conference center; public officials have said the tax increase could bring over $300,000 in additional revenue each year.

Other information has emerged, including a commitment from the Howard County Board of Commissioners to spend $150,000 out of its Economic Development Income Tax budget to the project each year for 15 years, totaling $2.25 million.

Specifics about the amount of private money flowing into the project have yet to emerge.

Also not revealed have been exact totals related to the city’s full contribution, although Goodnight said as recently as this summer he was using measures passed by the Common Council last year as his “baseline.”

Along with the loan – or bonds – described by Sparks, the city has acknowledged a plan to also utilize an undetermined amount of cash reserves, including money generated from the area’s Tax Increment Financing district.

Dora surprised

Thursday’s announcement followed one made in June naming MWA Kokomo LLC, led by Vincent Dora, president of Dora Hospitality Group, the project’s developer.

June’s announcement, meanwhile, emerged after the project’s original developer, Dora Hotel Co., led by Tim Dora, stepped away from the project. Tim Dora is the uncle of Vincent Dora, although the two companies operate separately.

Detailed explanations for why things didn’t work with either Dora have not been provided publicly, and Tim Dora, who appeared with local officials at a news conference unveiling the project in summer 2018, has not responded to media requests.

Sparks previously said Tim Dora’s departure was about business considerations and did not reflect on Tim Dora’s relationship with local officials. Sparks called it a “business decision on [Tim Dora’s] part.”

Sparks said there is no bad blood between the two sides.

Vincent Dora, however, was reached for comment Thursday and said he was surprised when he found out – he noted its “been a little while now” – his company was no longer involved in the project.

He said his company had been working with Indianapolis-based Prince Alexander Architecture, which he described as leading the development charge on the Kokomo project while his company handled management.

It’s because of that arrangement that Vincent Dora said Thursday he was surprised he ever became a public face of the project.

Nonetheless, it was Vincent Dora who earlier this year was placed at the forefront of the project’s private side – named in the first paragraph of a June media release and quoted saying Kokomo was “a community we wanted to invest in.”

That investment has now fallen by the wayside, instead picked up by Envoy.

“To my understanding, we were extremely close to having everything worked out,” Vincent Dora said, adding that he was told by Steve Alexander, with Prince Alexander Architecture, about the breakup but not given a reason for it.

Alexander did not return a request for comment.

“We were fully prepared to proceed. I believe when we last talked to Steve he said we would still be very happy to work on this project,” said Vincent Dora. “I don’t why it fell apart.”

He added: “I was very surprised. I had lots of great conversations with the mayor and his team and Charlie Sparks. We were pretty in depth with the brand and … all kinds of things. Getting into the weeds on details. I thought it was pretty much a done deal.”

Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp on Thursday declined to say why the deal fell through.

“The deal with the previous developer didn’t work out and so the city and the county and the Alliance began to entertain other potential partnerships,” said Tharp.

About Dora’s surprise at being a one-time face of the project, Tharp said: “We asked their team who they wanted to quote and to send over quotes, and that’s what they did.”

Sparks did not return a request for comment about Dora.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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