- Associated Press - Monday, December 21, 2015

PORT ARTHUR, Texas (AP) - The fate of Port Arthur’s Hotel Sabine has been unclear for decades.

Various regimes of city officials have heard proposals since the 1980s to turn the hotel into everything from an affordable housing complex to a private prison.

Among the recent proposal was one to ask Hollywood filmmakers if they would be interested in blowing up the 10-story, asbestos-ridden building on Procter Street.

“It’s a wreck,” said Michael Gaertner, a Galveston architect who recently came forward with another pitch to revitalize the hotel.

Gaertner and Keith White, a Houston real estate investor, were in Port Arthur earlier this month to present a proposal to city officials for the purchase of the historic hotel, which was built in 1929 and abandoned in the mid-1980s.

At least three other developers have shown interest in the Hotel Sabine this year, City Manager Brian McDougal told the Beaumont Enterprise (https://bit.ly/1Zb606A).

But developers have come calling for decades, and the derelict, sagging building has remained unchanged.

McDougal said with downtown looking sparse and worn for many years, he can understand why the public might be skeptical of new proposals for the Hotel Sabine.

“We didn’t get this way overnight and we’re not going to fix it overnight,” he said. “I, personally, think there’s hope.”

Gaertner is optimistic about his proposal - renovating old hotels in downtown areas is his expertise.

His portfolio includes the Hotel LaSalle in Bryan and the Tremont House Hotel and the Hotel Galvez in Galveston.

Gaertner believes that starting with the hotel can “set the tone” for the rest of downtown and bring in clientele for prospective business owners. He said he has seen it happen in Bryan and Galveston.

Gaertner and White estimate rehabbing the Hotel Sabine would cost at least $12 million.

White said this is relatively cheap real estate in Texas.

Susan Rogers, an architecture professor at the University of Houston, worked in Port Arthur for about six years and grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan.

“It strikes me how much Port Arthur looks like Detroit, even though there’s so much money moving through the city,” she said.

Rogers isn’t sure if starting with hotel renovation would help revitalize the rest of downtown. But, she said, there’s not a set formula.

In Oakland, California, she said, it began with allowing entrepreneurs to rent storefronts for $1 a year.

In Houston, it was a combination of housing incentives, new parks and public transit lines.

Gaertner understands that downtown Port Arthur is almost desolate, but he also sees potential for a walkable city with streets he thinks wouldn’t take much work to fix.

As for the hotel, it needs a lot of work, but Gaertner has dealt with worse.

He said he once renovated a building with a 40-foot-wide hole in the roof that had been there for almost two decades.

Part of the resurgence of interest in the Hotel Sabine has to do with new state incentives for historical preservation.

Developers receive a 25-percent state tax credit of the rehabilitation cost, combined with a 20-percent federal historical preservation tax credit.

“Now these buildings are going to make economic sense,” Gaertner said.

McDougal said the city has been working on a revitalization plan that the council will vote on next year, so it’s hard to predict the fate of the Hotel Sabine.

McDougal supports converting the building back into a hotel.

As for the rest of downtown, his suggestion to the city council has been to notify the property owners that their structures aren’t up to code.

If the owners don’t comply, McDougal said the city can take them to court and eventually acquire the property.

If the city acquired most of the downtown properties, he said, officials could send out a nationwide proposal to develop the entire area.

Rogers believes that the key to making Port Arthur a place to shop again is finding an anchor point, which could be the Hotel Sabine.

“You have to focus, you can’t take it all on,” she said. “I think the tendency is always to try to plan everything at once.”

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Information from: The Beaumont Enterprise, https://beaumontenterprise.com

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