Herring Hotel revival remains on wish list

Published: Jul. 14, 2015 at 8:26 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 14, 2015 at 9:38 PM CDT
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By John Kanelis

Robert Goodrich has this dream.

He owns an old downtown Amarillo building. It's been vacant for decades. It has served as a magnet for "hobos," he said. He wants to restore the Herring Hotel to its former grandeur – and according to at least one leading downtown redevelopment official, Goodrich stands a good chance of seeing his dream come true.

Goodrich and his wife, Leticia, pay property taxes on the Herring. They try their best to keep the vagrants out.

And he keeps lobbying Amarillo City Hall to give the Herring some consideration.

The Herring Hotel, a once-grand establishment, went dark in 1978 when the federal government vacated offices it had established in the building.

Melissa Dailey, who runs Downtown Amarillo Inc. – an economic development agency dedicated to the downtown district – thinks the Herring "absolutely has potential for redevelopment," although she is not as certain its future as a hotel as Goodrich.

"There's been this perception around the city that we're not interested in the Herring building," Dailey said. "That's just not true."

City Hall is undergoing considerable change these days, Goodrich noted, with three new City Council members on board. At least two of them are questioning the feasibility of the city's projected downtown revival plan, which includes the construction of an outdoor event venue and a downtown convention hotel.

If the event venue gets tabled, the hotel possibly won't be built, according to many observers.

Where does Goodrich's dream fit into this picture? He said he's made an application to the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone board, which was established in 2011 to provide assistance to downtown business interests.

"All I'm asking is for the TIRZ board to take my proposal off the table and give me a vote, up or down," Goodrich said.

The TIRZ board so far hasn't acted on his request, which Goodrich insisted asks no more from the TIRZ than the Marriott hotel project at the historic Fisk Building, which the TIRZ board approved.

"I didn't request anything more than what they gave to the Fisk building," Goodrich said. "But I was told that the TIRZ board was instructed by the city not to act on my request."

Goodrich grew up in Amarillo. He said he spent his graduation night from Amarillo High School in May 1953 in the Herring Hotel's Crystal Ballroom. He went away to college after high school and for several years taught urban economics and real estate at the Eastern New Mexico University's College of Business in Portales. "I have some knowledge of this stuff," he said of his hopes of finding a developer willing to invest in the Herring Hotel.

Goodrich bought the Herring Hotel in 1988. Over the more than a quarter of a century he and his wife have owned the building, he's presented several ideas to developers, investors, city leaders – just about anyone who would listen.

The Herring could become home to a 40-room "boutique hotel," he said, with commercial space on the lower floors. "We could have a retail establishment of some sort," he said.

The Herring comprises 14 floors with approximately 200,000 square feet of floor space. Goodrich said it was built as a 600-room hotel in 1926.

Its days as a hotel ended in 1966, he said, and then the federal government moved in with several offices housed inside the building. The government left the building in the late 1970s and it's been vacant ever since.

"I knew something about the building," Goodrich said as he considered buying the property. "I wanted to save it for posterity." He said that federal tax law changed in 1987, which opened up the possibility of purchasing the property. "I believed I could find someone who would want to save it."

Goodrich said he's had some interest from developers, but next-to-zero support from the city.

DAI Inc.'s Melissa Dailey said that when the hotel was built, its location at Third Avenue was a prime location near the central part of the downtown district. "It's on the edge" of the district now, she said.

The potential for the Herring, according to Dailey, might lie in the development of a park across the street and the development of a nearby bus-transfer station.

She noted that the downtown district already has a number of residential projects under way, such as the Barfield Building at Sixth Avenue and Polk Street, which was recently purchased by a developer and is inching closer to being renovated, and some loft apartments along 10th Avenue, just east of Tyler Street.

Goodrich's TIRZ application asks for $3.6 million in tax increment funding, with private investors paying roughly $32 million to renovate and reopen the building.

On Nov. 8, 2012, Mayor Paul Harpole, in a letter to an Amarillo law firm representing Goodrich, wrote that he didn't "sense any interest among the City Commissioners to publicly fund another hotel at this time." Harpole's letter noted that the city already had invested in the Marriott Hotel downtown and noted that the city was not interested in investing in a project that would "compete with the publicly funded city-owned convention hotel," which he said "is simply not a prudent business practice for the city."

Harpole's letter suggested that "the city's involvement, if any, with the Herring, is best done at some future phase of downtown redevelopment, not now."

Dailey, though, sees a possible public-private partnership relating to some parking at the Herring site. "I don't think we're that far off," she said.

Dailey said she envisions a "mixed-use project" for the Herring, perhaps similar to what Goodrich is considering; it might include some limited residential space along with commercial development.

"I'm just waiting now for the TIRZ board to act on my request," Goodrich said. "Any developer worth his smarts is going to call the city and say, 'What's the story?'"

Goodrich continues to hold out hope that he can find a developer who'll buy into his dream. "There's a whole industry out there, of people who run these historic preservation tours," he said. The Herring Hotel, he said, fits nicely into that business niche.

Noting some of the urban legend and rumors that the Herring Hotel might be haunted, Goodrich said, "There actually are people out there who might want to talk to ghosts."