Hotel near Cal U's new conference center not expected to open for another year

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A planned hotel near California University of Pennsylvania that is expected to help the school's new convocation center compete for executive conferences and conventions will open a year late, officials say.

The hotel -- being developed privately with help from a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant -- was to have begun construction a year ago in time for completion this fall.

But soil problems at the site required additional design work and have pushed the completion date back until late summer or fall 2013, said Richard Miller, president of Summit Development, a Southpointe firm developing the project jointly with AVI Food Systems of Warren, Ohio.

The 84-room Hampton Inn & Suites, planned for the California Technology Park, would be the borough's first hotel.

The absence of overnight accommodations in California, a college town, long has been problematic since the closest rooms for families and others visiting campus were in Bentleyville or Belle Vernon, Cal U officials said.

Likewise, convocation center planners saw the lack of a hotel as a barrier to booking trade shows, conventions and conferences.

Officials held a groundbreaking in September 2011. But Mr. Miller said engineers discovered that the hotel location was a "fill site" onto which trees and other debris had been dumped years ago and buried, possibly from earlier development in the technology park.

He said that necessitated redesign of the foundation and removal of approximately 32,000 yards of soil that posed compaction and settlement problems that could have led to building cracks and other problems. "You can't build on top of that stuff," he said.

The changes and delay escalated the project's $10.2 million cost, but the firms are weighing various modifications to reduce expenses and believe the project can still be completed for about $10.5 million, Mr. Miller said. Preliminary site work is under way and the hope is to begin construction in earnest in September, he said.

"Disappointed? Yes. Time is money and this took longer for us to get started than anticipated," he said.

Nevertheless, the project's backers are "absolutely confident" that the hotel will come to fruition and will attract guests not only from Cal U but from elsewhere, including workers tied to the area's growing energy business, he said.

Cal U's $59 million convocation center, which includes a 6,000-seat arena, held a grand opening in Apri. University officials tout it as a boon to both the school and surrounding community, but a debate over the campus debt incurred to build it has added pressure on the university to bring in steady event revenue.

Officials at Cal U had no immediate comment Wednesday on how the delay might impact potential for conference center and convention bookings this year and next. Ben Bolander, the center's executive director and an employee of VenuWorks, the Iowa firm hired to manage the facility, doubted it would adversely impact arena events.

A $5 million RACP grant awarded to the Redevelopment Authority of Washington County included $3.5 million for the hotel itself and $1.5 million to help furnish a conferencing center in Cal U's convocation center.

"It can't be done soon enough," Robert Griffin, economic development director for the Washington County redevelopment authority, said of the Hampton Inn development. "People need places to stay."

education - neigh_washington

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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