Addition of hotel expected to boost vibrancy at Willits | AspenTimes.com

Addition of hotel expected to boost vibrancy at Willits

Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt (right) and Mariner Real Estate Management's local representative, Tim Belinski, sign a steel beam being used for construction of an Element Basalt hotel. The official groundbreaking for the 112-room hotel was held Tuesday morning.

Leasing retail space at Willits Town Center remains a "tough sell" despite the success and allure of Whole Foods Market, according to the president of the company that owns and is developing the project.

Ryan Anderson, of Mariner Real Estate Management, said Tuesday he hopes that the construction of a 112-room hotel at Willits will help ease the challenge of signing tenants.

Mariner and Silverwest Hotel Partners LLC teamed to build an Element by Westin, which is part of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts brand. An official groundbreaking was held in low temperatures Tuesday morning, although work started on the foundation roughly a month ago.

Ed Mace, a partner in Silverwest Hotel Partners, said the Element Basalt will open by Thanksgiving 2015 to take advantage of bookings during ski season.

“I think it’s going faster than we thought.”
Ryan Anderson, Mariner Real Estate Management on Willits progress

The one-bedroom suites that will dominate the mix of rooms are intended for extended stays, Mace said. He and his partner, Charlie Peck, estimated that the average stay of their customers will be slightly more than three days. Single-night stays also will be accepted, but the idea is to target customers such as families coming for a ski vacation or couples coming to the Roaring Fork Valley for special events.

Room rates haven't been set yet, but Mace said prices will likely top $200 per night during ski season and be in the $150 range at other times. An earlier design had the hotel at 113 rooms.

The rooms will have dining areas but not full kitchens, Mace said. That will encourage customers to eat at Basalt's restaurants and pick up food at nearby Whole Foods.

"That's how we do room service," Mace quipped while addressing a crowd of about 40 at the groundbreaking.

In an interview with The Aspen Times following the ceremony, Mace said Starwood and the hotel partners decided they needed to use the Aspen name as part of their marketing efforts. Basalt doesn't have name recognition yet, he said, and the hotel needs to be positioned so Internet users looking for lodging in Aspen can find it. Thus, the hotel's full name will be Element Basalt Aspen Valley.

"We appreciate that locals might not recognize it," Mace said diplomatically. He noted it's not unique to use the term "Aspen Valley." There's Aspen Valley Hospital, Aspen Valley Land Trust and Aspen Valley Ski Club.

The hotel will create 25 to 30 full-time-equivalent jobs, Mace said. There will be more workers than that on the payroll, but some will work part-time and seasonal hours.

Mace, an Eagle Valley developer who focuses on hotel development, said he first contemplated a project in Willits in 2007. The recession snuffed the early plans. The prior developer of Willits ran out of money and lost most of the property through foreclosure. Mariner Real Estate Management, which focuses on indebted properties, bought the property in May 2010.

Mariner's first act was to complete a scaled-back Whole Foods supermarket space to provide an anchor tenant and generate shopper traffic. Once that was completed, Mariner constructed a building that features retail space on the lower floor, medical offices affiliated with Valley View Hospital on the second floor and offices on the third story.

Now, work is underway on the hotel. The project will be roughly 50 percent completed after the hotel is finished, Anderson said.

"I think it's going faster than we thought," he said.

Six buildings remain approved but unbuilt. On deck is a building with retail space on the ground floor and affordable housing. Retail space in other buildings will have to wait an undetermined amount of time.

"We need some leases signed," Anderson said.

Mariner is contacting prospective tenants directly, including national retailers, to try to interest them in locating at Willits. Many of the big players aim for a certain number of expansions each year, but Basalt hasn't been on their list, according to Anderson. Prospective tenants look at the project's proximity to Highway 82 as an advantage as well as Whole Foods' drawing power. But the market size requires Mariner to really try to sell the area.

"It's a lot tougher sell, and we knew that coming in," Anderson said.

The company will remain patient but diligent with capital investments. It has no plans to sell the development any time soon, according to Anderson.

"We've got a lot of wood to chop," he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com