Sunday Focus: Owner considers options for historic Eola Hotel

Published 12:06 am Sunday, August 9, 2015

(Photo illustration / Ben Hillyer)

(Photo illustration / Ben Hillyer)

NATCHEZ — The new owner of the crown jewel of downtown Natchez — the Eola Hotel — is going back to the drawing board to craft the future of the building.

Virginia-based attorney Robert Lubin, who purchased the hotel at the end of last year and proceeded to close it, originally said the property would no longer function as a hotel. He later presented plans to the Natchez Preservation Commission to convert the building into senior living apartments.

But, after a visit from Mayor Butch Brown, Lubin is keeping the hotel option on the table, he says.

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“Right now, I’m looking at keeping some hotel rooms, but also incorporating some apartments,” Lubin said. “Nothing is guaranteed, though.”

The Eola is not new to Lubin; he owned it from 1994 and 1998. During that time, he found problems with the hotel’s profitability because of its design, he said.

Because of the hotel’s small bedrooms and tiny bathrooms, Lubin said the space was no longer appealing to the modern-day guest.

“I think the issue is it’s an incredible building, and we definitely want to preserve it, but we have to be mindful about what can economically work,” Lubin said. “I have been open from day one to whatever structure is viable to keep it beautiful, but at the same time, make sure it doesn’t result in a poor financial result.”

Now, Lubin said his tentative plan for the Eola is to decrease the number of rooms, and then expand what’s left.

“The most we can get is probably 60 or 70 rooms, total,” he said.

Brown — and other city officials and downtown residents — have expressed strong interest in seeing the Eola continue to operate as a historic hotel. Brown said because of the Eola’s significance to Natchez history and the downtown area, he urged Lubin, during their recent meeting in Washington, D.C., to consider keeping the Eola as a hotel.

“When we discussed the property and its need for it to remain a historic hotel, I think he came to appreciate our discussion,” Brown said.

Meeting halfway, Lubin and Brown agreed that apartments would satisfy the financial stability for the hotel, while expanded hotel rooms would keep the historic tradition of the hotel alive.

“There will be a tremendous amount of cosmetic work done on the facility, and he will try to keep it as accurate as possible,” Brown said of Lubin’s plans. “The combination of some apartments and a hotel makes a great deal of sense.”

As for the public areas of the hotel, like the first floor, Lubin said he hasn’t finalized anything yet.

Ideally, though, he said he would like for those areas to remain public, so any tourist or resident can stroll into the Eola from Pearl and Main streets and enjoy the property and its history.

And while plans for the Eola’s renovation are still tentative, Lubin said the financial side of the project is more than secured.

The investors

The Eola Hotel may be synonymous with Natchez history, but its investors are anything but local.

Private foreign investors are financing the restoration of the Eola Hotel through a government program known as EB-5, or Immigrant Investor Program.

Established in 1990, the program was created to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors.

In return for their financial ventures, investors are granted permanent U.S. residency by way of a green card.

The program is one of many immigration services directed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s a way for immigrants to invest in new commercial enterprises that help job creation and stimulate the economy,” said Sharon Scheidhaur, public affairs officer for immigration services.

Scheidhaur said the Eola is considered a new commercial enterprise because it would be modernized and potentially used for a new purpose other than a hotel.

And while EB-5 investments are mutually beneficial, Scheidhaur said they require a lengthy process.

Before the investor obtains his or her green card, he or she must first complete an Alien Entrepreneur Form, which is then reviewed by immigration services.

“The form says who they are, how much money they plan on investing, how many jobs they will create — things like that,” Scheidhaur said.

If the form is approved, then the foreign investor receives a temporary green card that is valid for two years.

After that two-year period, immigration services revisit the application and checks to see if the investment has performed well.

If the investment proves successful, then a permanent green card is issued.

Lubin began using the program during his first round of Eola ownership in the 1990s.

“I want to use the program to inject money into Natchez,” Lubin said.

Since re-purchasing the hotel in December, Lubin said the investment program has been reopened.

According to Lubin’s company website, Lubin, Salvetti & Associates, PLLC, $4.5 million has been invested in the historic hotel’s restoration, which was financed by nine foreign investors.

Lubin also used the EB-5 investment program to finance the Magnolia Bluffs Casino.

According to Lubin’s website, the Magnolia Bluffs Casino had 46 EB-5 investors who collectively invested $23 million in the casino.

“The EB-5 program is a way people can immigrate to U.S. by investing money,” Lubin said. “It’s a way to raise capital.”

And although millions of dollars have been invested in the Eola — the yield has yet to come to complete fruition.

“I think the issue right now is trying to balance what the community wants and what will financially work,” Lubin said.

Brown said the EB-5 investment program has historically worked well in Natchez, and he’s confident it will do the same for the Eola.

“There is money being invested, and it creates employment,” Brown said. “It works well, and it has worked well.”

The future

While official plans for the Eola’s restoration float in an uncertain limbo, Lubin said he is confident the final product would be something in which Natchez can take pride.

“I feel like I’m a Natchez resident,” said Lubin, who visits the area often to check up on his seven-story downtown investment. “We have cameras around the building right now, and we have people monitoring it. I know it needs to be strong for its next call of duty.”

The hotel on South Pearl Street has been locked and closed to the public since Lubin bought it from Baton Rouge businessman Bob Dean.

Since its closure, the hotel has suffered a few break-ins and some vandalism.

Thanks to surveillance cameras, however, authorities were able to identify the vandals.

“We have added cameras and have people monitoring (the hotel),” Lubin said.

Lubin said there is no definite timetable on the new Eola’s debut.

However, he did promise that the Eola’s future looks bright.

“It’s the grand ole lady of Natchez,” Lubin said. “It needs to be a part of the community again, and that’s what we intend to do.”