By Rhonda Bodfield & Jay Gonzales –
Hip, Sleek, Modern, Unpretentious
It was a mantra that built for more than 40 years – Tucson needs a downtown hotel.
After decades of stops and starts, best laid plans and disappointments, the AC Hotel Tucson Downtown, a Marriott property, opened in September, crossing a finish line that had been in the distance since the 1970s.
It is the first major hotel to open downtown since what was called the Braniff Hotel opened in 1973 at the corner of Granada Avenue and West Broadway near the Tucson Convention Center. The historic Hotel Congress with its 40 rooms has been going solo since the Hotel Arizona, formerly the Braniff, closed its doors in 2012.
“We finally did it. We built a hotel in downtown Tucson,” said Scott Stiteler, the developer of the AC Hotel at 151 E. Broadway. “That’s electric.”
In doing so, Stiteler seems to have put a jolt into the hotel business downtown as two more properties are in the planning stages, another Marrriott – this one called the Moxy, which will be right around the corner from the AC Hotel – and a second hotel by Caliber Hospitality on the grounds of the Tucson Convention Center. In addition, HSL Properties, owners of the Hotel Arizona, have a plan to reopen that hotel by 2019.
“Scott Stiteler’s AC Marriott project is crucial for downtown,” said Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson. “It took partnerships – among the developers, the City of Tucson and Rio Nuevo – including tax incentives and unique financing, to make it happen. In many ways this property created a blueprint that is allowing new downtown hotel projects to follow.”
But it took some convincing just to get it started, Stiteler said. At the hotel’s opening reception in November, he said the Bank of Tucson was the 12th bank he went to for financing, finally getting a $36 million loan that made the hotel a reality.
“It was a big risk on their part,” Stiteler said. “They had a lot of faith in this community and in us.”
With the recent resurgence of downtown with restaurants, retail, entertainment and places to live, the hotel adds another much-needed piece to the pie of a complete downtown. It means visitors don’t have to commute to the action from other hotels in the area. They can stay right in the middle of it.
“Folks that are here on business want to stay close to where they’re doing that business,” said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “The other part of that is that we have a convention center and we have an arena that draws people from out of town. People want to stay within walking distance – or at least convenient transit distance – from where they’re going.”
Bradley J. Lloyd, VP of Lloyd Construction Company, which served as the general contractor for the project, said his firm was selected in part because of its commitment to hiring a local workforce to the highest degree possible.
“The owners were vehement about putting Tucson first,” Lloyd said, noting the project resulted in more than 700 construction jobs, with the vast majority of subs hailing from the area. “With our 48-year history in Tucson, that’s important to us. What we can keep local, we do.”
Lloyd considers the project a flagship for Lloyd Construction, and added that his company was proud to play a role in the ongoing evolution of downtown.
“Growing up in Tucson, I’ve had a lot of experience with the downtown area and I watched it go from bad to worse to devastating,” he said. “But downtown has really seen a rebirth.”
Lloyd said he first noticed it about four years ago when he and his wife went to the Tucson Convention Center for a high-school competition.
“We saw people walking at night, enjoying the new restaurants, cafes and entertainment venues. Downtown Tucson was alive again,” Lloyd said. “My wife and I were thrilled to see the changes. So, when Lloyd Construction was able to become a part of the revitalization through our participation in the AC Hotel, I could not have been more excited.
“We truly believe the hotel will continue to shape a positive downtown experience for Tucsonans and visitors. The elegance and uniqueness of the AC Hotel just adds to the value of everything around it.”
A sense of place
The AC Hotel is a boutique hotel design straight out of Barcelona, but with a sense of place. Stiteler’s group set out to incorporate a bit of local flavor into their sleek new property.
Locally distilled Del Bac whiskey is prominently featured in the first-floor bar.
Along with local art, big slabs of decorative stone adorn the lobby, an echo of Tucson’s long-running gem and mineral show. Trains get an abstract treatment in large black-and-white murals in the media salons, a nod to the nearby historic train depot.
The hotel is both a reflection of downtown’s evolution, as well as simultaneously a potential catalyst for change.
And just as it was a long time coming, it’s coming at a pivotal time as Tucson goes through throes of investment and disruption that will shape downtown in the coming decade.
A decade in the making
The roots of the hotel date back to 2005.
That’s when Stiteler was first approached about the intersection at Fifth Avenue and Congress Street. It was an easy romance. “This intersection, because of Hotel Congress, because of the Rialto block, is very easy to be drawn to. I had an instant attraction to those two buildings.”
Soon came the One North Fifth property, which was facing demolition at the time, and the 100 block of East Broadway, where the hotel stands today.
That left Stiteler and his partners with a truly remarkable footprint that’s rare in a contemporary urban environment – the ability to chart a course for three parts of a critical intersection.
“There were a number of elements that really spoke to me – to be able to play an integral role, the fact that these buildings needed attention and love, and I love challenges. I always go to the tallest mountain,” Stiteler said.
It was 2012 when Stiteler got the first phone call from a big hotel that wanted a hotel downtown. A couple of months later came a call from a different company. And then a month later, another.
“Now it’s real,” he recalled. They liked what they were seeing in downtown Tucson – and they liked the location most of all.
“Sometimes, when you travel and stay in a hotel, you’re three blocks from the action,” said Stiteler. “This one, you walk 10 steps in any direction and you’re at a place that’s local and fun. Not every hotel gets to be right in the center of the action.”
‘Not too expensive or pretentious’
Stiteler had no experience in hotels, but Rudy Dabdoub did. He’d built hotels in Nogales, Sierra Vista and Phoenix – but at the same time, he wasn’t so big that Tucson was just No. 42 on a long list of projects.
The two talked. They found their visions aligned.
At first, they considered a more modest, maybe safer, product. But when they heard of the AC brand, the business partners were struck by its polished elegance and its potential.
Dabdoub said the beauty of it is that his parents stayed at the hotel and felt comfortable, and his college-aged children enjoyed it as well. “It’s not too expensive or pretentious, but it’s also very modern with high quality. It’s hip, but not so hip it scares anybody.”
Dabdoub said he hopes the hotel will help with two big goals. A strong downtown, he said, has to draw an infusion of resources and energy from outside visitors – and downtown to date has been supported primarily by local residents. And he hopes a stronger downtown also will help stop the bleed of young talent to other communities with thriving areas where people live, work and play without ever getting behind a wheel.
Now Stiteler and Dabdoub are working together on the Moxy, another Marriott brand, atop the Depot Plaza at 45 N. Fifth Ave., to continue capitalizing on the relationship.
It all started sinking in for Stiteler the week the hotel opened. There were airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base staying one night, a contingent of state lawmakers the second. As he walked away after a long day of work on the property, he literally stopped on his way to the nearby studio where he stays. “Wait, I can stay in a hotel,” he exclaimed. “That’s a cool feeling.”
“The transformation of downtown Tucson in the past five years has been amazing and visitors want to be part of it,” DeRaad said. “The downtown restaurants, coffee bars, retail, live music and nightlife make it a different experience than the rest of the metro area. Having a hip, trendy hotel in downtown has created a strong, new selling point for us.”