Major redesign planned for hotel Owner says skeptics are wrong about plans for closed Pier 5 inn

September 24, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Michael Lasky says it's understandable if people are a little skeptical about his plans to transform the Pier Five hotel, now stripped down to its metal fittings, into luxury accommodations in time for a late-winter grand opening.

After all, at least two previously scheduled reopenings have gone by the boards this year, resulting in many canceled bookings, including some weddings, and a missed tourist season.

"I'm embarrassed. I promised the mayor the hotel would open in April and it didn't. That's embarrassing," said Lasky, the Pikesville-based infomercial king.

Whatever the opening date, some experts doubt that the 64-room hotel, located southeast of the National Aquarium in the Inner Harbor, can generate enough income to justify such pricey amenities as a concierge, custom-made furniture, three phones and outlets for fax machines and computers in each guest room.

Lasky, who made a fortune from producing television "infomercials" and running a telephone advice line manned by "psychics," scoffs at his critics, saying there's pent-up demand for a boutique hotel that oozes luxury.

Two classy restaurants, a diner and a lounge will draw crowds on their own, Lasky said, creating more revenue. Typically, hotel restaurants are money-losing propositions.

Lasky's marketing director at the Pikesville-based Inphomation Inc., Joe Challmes, said it took time to come up with a theme and a look that Lasky wanted: "We're not looking to just be a hotel. We're looking to be a Baltimore gathering spot. We want this to be a destination for Baltimoreans."

Today, Lasky will fuel that idea by buying Oriole Eddie Murray's 500th home run ball for $500,000 at a noontime news conference at the hotel under construction. He had planned to display the ball in the hotel when it reopens as the HarborInn Pier V, but yesterday a spokesman said another "more public" site has been selected.

Lasky became involved in the hotel venture when he joined Pure Five LLC, a group led by developer Otis Warren, in taking over what had been a financially troubled hotel from the city in June 1995.

Lasky openly talks about plans for the hotel and appears to be calling the shots regarding the Inner Harbor property, say former and current employees. Warren did not return repeated calls.

Competition

A new 800-room hotel planned for the east Inner Harbor neighborhood by the Cordish Co. doesn't give the Lasky group pause. He sees his hotel as being complementary, not competition for the big chain hotels.

"We'll be happy to take the overflow" from the big hotels, said Joseph Kreit, general manager of the new hotel.

The hotel had proved an embarrassment to the city in the past, when the original developers defaulted on a city-backed loan.

It was hoped that the property's troubles were over when the group of investors led by Warren purchased the prime Inner Harbor property from the city in June 1995 for $5.5 million.

The property closed six months later for what was to have been a $3 million renovation, taking three months. Since then two general managers, an architect and various contractors have come and gone, say former and present employees.

"In late June, the owners thought they couldn't handle the overhead from a payroll standpoint and decided to let the designer and myself go. I was told the project was on hold and they couldn't afford my salary," said Dale Garvin, who was general manager from April 1 to June 30.

Lasky is vague about what delayed the project, attributing it simply to "a variety of things."

Gary King, the architect now supervising the project, says Lasky asked him this summer to submit a redesign plan for the hotel. King said he did and Lasky hired the former Rouse Co. employee to oversee the renovation.

New style

A $10 million renovation and expansion is planned to turn the building into a business-oriented hotel with expanded meeting space and seven fewer guest rooms. This relatively new style of accommodations combines the intimacy and warmth of an inn with the services and amenities of a business hotel.

"There's nothing in Baltimore like this," Lasky said.

The hotel's marquee restaurant will be a steakhouse run by Baltimore restaurateur Lenny Kaplan, Lasky said. However, Kaplan, who owns the Polo Grill on University Parkway, said, "I'm not ready to discuss it."

Experts disagree

Two experts are skeptical about Lasky's plans to charge a posted rate of $170 to $200 per night.

"They need to charge over $200 a night [to make money] because they only have 64 rooms to sell," said Garvin, former general manager of the Hyatt Inner Harbor Hotel and former acting executive director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

"I don't think any full-service, boutique hotel can survive in Baltimore without 200 rooms. The costs are just too high," said a former local hotelier, who didn't want his name used.

Conversely, another expert called it "a great idea." Clifford N. Mendelson said, "There's definite- ly a market for an Inner Harbor hotel that has more amenities than the standard convention hotel yet is cheaper than [upscale] Harbor Court." Mendelson is director of hospitality services for Carey Winston Co., a commercial real estate firm in Bethesda.

The previous hotel was opened in June 1989 by Buddy Harrison under the management of Clarion Hotels and resorts.

Harrison's failure cost the city $5.2 million; the city forgave another $6.2 million in property taxes and federal loans funneled through the city.

To prove his intentions are genuine, Lasky points out that he has hired a construction manager, Struever Bros Eccles & Rouse, and a general manager who isinterviewing prospective employees and ordering supplies.

"We're the only waterfront hotel in Baltimore. That alone will sell the hotel," said Kreit, the new general manager.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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