Empty rooms, empty promises

It’s tough to run a hotel when it is forbidden even to hang outa “Vacancy” sign.

It’s even tougher when the hotel features a restaurant that isnot permitted to advertise — except to Portland Statestudents.

That dilemma is faced by operators of PSU’s University Place atS.W. Fourth Ave. and Lincoln St., the former Doubletree Inn. Underuniversity ownership, it now identifies itself as an educationalconference center.

Dennis Burkholder, general manager of what may have a new namebut remains in actuality a hotel and a restaurant, is faced withthis dilemma.

“When the legislature approved the bonding, it made the center apublic entity and, as such, it should not compete with privatehotels,” Burkholder explained.

Besides the competitive angle, there are other angles that limita hotel operated by a public university.

“The restrictions probably weighed most heavily on ourrestaurant operation,” Burkholder said.

Mike Watson, food and beverage director for the restaurant,couldn’t agree more. Lunch finishes at 2 p.m. but at 1:45 p.m. itwas already empty, with no evidence anyone had lunched thererecently. The front desk was marked “Closed.”

“We’re asking for help getting us on the map,” Watson said. Theeffective date of PSU ownership, he said, was March 3.

“It’s been a very, very slow start. We’ve made some attempts topromote the lounge and restaurant. We’ve printed some coupons.”

The restaurant is permitted to advertise in the Vanguard’srestaurant guide, since the guide theoretically reaches theuniversity population. Watson ran a full-page ad, featuring “Oursignature Dungeness Crab Cakes” and extolling such special featuresas happy hour in the lounge seven days a week. An insert in the adpromises a 10 percent discount all the time, any time, for all PSUfaculty, staff and students.

The ad suggests express lunch buffet for $7.95 Tuesday,Wednesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

A chalked sign in the restaurant entrance listed the attractionsof a new Sunday brunch, starting October 24, 7:30 a.m. to 2p.m.

“All you can eat of our delicious breakfast and kitchenfeatures,” the sign reads. It gives the prices as $12.95 foradults, $6.95 for students. Bottomless champagne is an additional$4.

“We have been building up on lunch business,” Watson said. “Ifit continues to grow, I’ll experiment.”

Until recently, the Portland Development Commission was locatedacross Lincoln St., which resulted in help for the lunch business.But the PDC recently moved out of the neighborhood.

The hotel itself has an overage of unused rooms and full roomsnormally lead to more in-house restaurant business.

“If the people are not here, they don’t come down forbreakfast,” Burkholder pointed out. “We have more seriousrestraints than a private industry.”

It’s not so much a case of making a profit, since any profitwill go to paying off the bond debt. Burkholder and Watson wouldlike to make a success of their management.

“The university has its own end game,” Burkholder said, inconsidering the future of the property. “The university was in agrowth mode.” He viewed the purchase as a case of Jay Kenton,former vice president for finance and administration, seeing achance to acquire four and a half acres of prime land in thecentral urban area.

“The university is probably looking for donations,” Burkholdersaid, “Looking for additional bonding to build the property intosomething more economically feasible.”

At the time of the purchase, Kenton had stated that this futurein fact was behind his move to acquire the property from the RealEstate Investment Trust that owned it. He had hinted at that timethat there might eventually be considerable reconstruction on theacreage.

One use that had been planned for the property at the time itwas acquired was a facility to temporarily house students waitingfor openings in a university housing facility. Burkholder said thehotel has about 20 students housed there now. They don’t get dailyhotel room service. Once a week they get their rooms straightenedup.

Watson has some ideas for building up fall business. He mayconsider Friday and Saturday night entertainment, dinner theater,music or comedy.

Burkholder, meantime, has a plan to interest universityprofessors in helping secure educational conferences at the hotel.It has identified itself as an educational conference center,rather than a hotel.