PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

Local News

June 30, 2010

Proposal could breathe life into historic Hotel Sabine

PORT ARTHUR — Like a boom surrounded by crashing waves, the historic Hotel Sabine has withstood every major economic movement in the downtown district of Port Arthur since it was erected in the 1920s. Today, it still casts its 398-foot shadow onto the downtown corridor, and though it’s seen thousands of residents come and go, a new key is turning in the front door.

The tallest lasting sign that the downtown is still alive in this port city of about 55,000, could soon become a landing pad, a catalyst, for a level of economic development the city has not experienced since the 1980s.

Some residents are already hearing the rumbling of tires and shoes shuffling down the streets and sidewalks. Cars and people going somewhere, inside, rather than window shopping empty, dusty storefronts or having conversations that echo across alleyways because of emptiness. Such has been the state of many downtowns across the nation.

After two hurricanes whipped the city and threw future planning on its side, the city was thrown back into survival mode and outmigration was severe. Until, until. Though many residents and businesses did leave the downtown, for those who stayed, a huge window of opportunity exists this year — one that the city, chamber, tourist bureau, businesses and industry are eager to step into. They are saying it’s time to see the downtown district catch up with the rapid, shotgun development that has been taking place everywhere, except downtown. Until, until.

Only one taker slapped a proposal on the table when the city of Port Arthur began advertising the sale of Hotel Sabine, and 30 years of offers later, this one taker could be considered by some the most promising. Many would say it’s because of timing.

The company has been developing property across from the hotel since 2007, but it wasn’t until this year it celebrated the grand opening of a regional training center toward kickstarting new businesses and equipping individuals to enter the job market or receive training toward a new profession. The Golden Triangle Empowerment Center, 617 Procter St., is one of Digital Workforce’s projects that has received regional support toward downtown revitalization.

“We looked at the city’s strategic plan and we thought there was some good data and we are drilling down deeper and we are looking at the 600 block for development,” said Melvin Smith, CEO and founder of Digital Workforce Academy. The company is hoping to widen the scope from its business incubator plan by looking at the four- to six-block area surrounding the hotel.

The company had already received a $2.6 billion investment to the City Limits building through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Smith said, and it’s now turning its sights toward ways to leverage dollars by partnering with the city and investors. Regarding the hotel, the company has earmarked $750,000 with some matching funds in place for development of the hotel.

Initially, DWA is offering a purchase price of $10,000 and a program with an estimated occupancy date as early as 36 months. The plan includes conceptual planning and assessment, marketing and community engagement, development, cleanup and construction.

What has helped Digital Workforce weigh in at a different level and separates this offer from others is the multiple avenues of funding now available.

Long-time investor and developer Jeff Hayes said he thinks the sale of the hotel has a better chance now than ever.

“There have been several offers of redevelopment of the hotel and none have figured out a way to make it work,” he said. The Hayes group also attempted to purchase the Hotel Sabine in the 1990s, however the costs to do environmental mitigations went through the roof. His group had intended to develop the structure for housing.

He said having investors on board and opening it up as mixed-use facility is a good way to go about it and he thinks it’s a good direction.

“The timing had to be right,” he added.

On Tuesday, Smith presented the city council a proposal backed by Shaun Davis with the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission and Jorge Ayala, area director of the U.S. EDA, to redevelop the 10-floor hotel as a mixed-use facility.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will conduct, both a Level 1 and 2 environmental assessment, valued at an estimated $15,000. The agency then has a program in place to fund full mitigation of the property, which could start at $250,000. These were programs not in place at the time of previous offers.

“We've been for years wanting to go outside of Port Arthur and get people to bring funds inside Port Arthur, and you're doing it,” said Bob Williamson, Port Arthur city councilman, District 5, this week.

Smith told the council there are also a number of soft costs and in kind fund options, including partnerships with Mardi Gras group and GTEC. The development team would include DWA, developers; Peerless Living LLC of Houston, development planning; RJH-JOC of Houston, construction consultants; R&R of Port Arthur, construction contractors; and Sigma Engineering Inc. of Beaumont, architect/engineers.

“It’s going to be really essential that we have the city of Port Arthur on board,” Smith said. “We need them on this type of project, to be successful. We are asking the city to put some of its money into this project.”

“I'm not saying we're the only game in town, but we do have a lot to offer,” he added.

 This week, Mayor Deloris “Bobbie” Prince said DWA appears to not only be in the business of building buildings, but in building people.

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