When Zach Halmstad and other members of Pablo Properties decided to buy and remodel the dilapidated former Ramada Convention Center, they endeavored to do more than simply make downtown Eau Claire’s largest hotel operational again.
Pablo Properties members, which in addition to JAMF Software co-founder Halmstad include JAMF employees Jason Wudi and Julia Johnson, decided to remake the hotel, named The Lismore, in a grand manner, even if that meant spending more money.
And, in a move even more risky, they decided to take on the costly project at a time when the nearby Confluence Project, which could play a major role in ensuring the hotel’s viability, was hardly a certainty. The $88 million project, for which fundraising is nearly complete, will include a mixed-use building that is nearly finished and a performing arts center on which construction is expected to begin in the fall.
“Normally you would wait for that to be finished before building a hotel like this,” Halmstad said Thursday morning shortly after a ceremony celebrating the official opening of The Lismore in the hotel’s lobby. “But we decided not to do that. Instead, we decided to build this before the Confluence to say, ‘We have such faith in that project and what it will mean for economic development here that we are going ahead with it.’ ”
Doing so meant taking a substantial chance. Without the nearly 400 people who will live in the mixed-use building and people attending shows at the 1,200-person capacity arts center, attracting enough business to keep the hotel viable would prove challenging.
That wasn’t the only risk involved with remodeling the eight-story hotel, which officially opened late Wednesday afternoon and includes 112 rooms, a civic center, The Informalist restaurant, a bar named the Dive and the Eau Claire Downtown Coffee shop. The structure had been badly mismanaged in recent years and had fallen into serious disrepair. After buying the structure in December 2013 for $1.6 million, Pablo partners realized the hotel was in even worse shape than they had feared. Earlier that year the hotel went into foreclosure after its owners failed to pay their bills.
Nearly every operating system in the hotel had to be replaced, along with the building’s brick exterior and even walls. During the past two-plus years, the building was stripped down to its bare structure and then remade using high-end materials that lend it a striking appearance unlike that of other Eau Claire buildings. In the meantime, the Confluence Project received $15 million in state funding, and private fundraising efforts proceeded for that project to occur.
Throughout the remodeling process, Halmstad and his partners encountered unforeseen struggles. A project initially estimated to cost about $15 million grew to have a $21 million price tag. As costs mounted, the partners were forced to find alternatives to some of their original plans.
But the trio were “very intentional” in what parts of the project would remain as initially envisioned. For instance, the group retained a distinctive staircase the leads from the first floor to the second-story bar called the Dive.
“We were determined to make something that was quality, something that was new, something that hadn’t been seen in Eau Claire before,” Halmstad said.
That goal was accomplished, if the reactions of visitors to Thursday’s opening ceremony at the hotel are any indication. City officials and others attending the event praised Pablo members for transforming the once-dumpy hotel into a high-quality location unique to Eau Claire.
“When this hotel was locally owned, it did very well,” Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bob McCoy said during the ceremony. “Now it’s back, bigger and better.”
Calling The Lismore “a signature location,” Downtown Eau Claire Inc. executive director Mike Schatz praised the hotel builders’ commitment to quality. The hotel is yet another sign of residents’ changing views of what is possible downtown and elsewhere in Eau Claire.
When it came to downtown redevelopment, “15 years ago people told me, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re never going to change this city,’ ” Schatz said. “With projects like this you see the pride this community has in downtown now. Now there is this optimism that wasn’t there before.”
Dan Market, CEO of Eau Claire construction company Market & Johnson, recalled working as a carpenter when the hotel was erected as a Hilton 40 years ago. On Thursday he marveled at the attractive new structure that will operate under the DoubleTree by Hilton brand.
“It was big deal in Eau Claire when this hotel was first built,” Market said, “and it’s a big deal to see it open again.”