Don Wieseler hopped in a golf cart parked inside the Ramada Plaza and whizzed over a small bridge and canal that he calls the centerpiece of his multimillion-dollar hotel renovation project at 72nd and Grover Streets.
With the enthusiasm of a kid showing off a new toy, the 76-year-old retired real estate developer continued driving a visitor through the main hallway and toward a new Castaways Bar & Grill, ballrooms, meeting rooms and hundreds of guest rooms, all of which have undergone a complete face-lift.
“We stripped it down to the bone,” Wieseler said of the nearly five-decade-old hotel and convention center. “It's all new. Plumbing, carpeting, electrical, everything. New. New. New.”
The energy that the officially retired South Dakotan poured into his “hobby” project has contributed to a revival of a hotel district near 72nd and Grover Streets. Two other hotels at the intersection now have renovation plans in the works.
The area had seen better days, primarily when live ponies were still racing at the now-demolished Ak-Sar-Ben track. But Omaha convention officials and developers expect the $30 million Ramada renovation and other nearby hotel improvements — along with anticipated growth of nearby shopping, sporting and other event opportunities — to raise the midtown thoroughfare's image as a tourist destination.
“There is a resurgence along 72nd Street,” said Dana Markel, head of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The new developments help connect the dots of everything happening along 72nd.”
Markel said she considers the enhanced 365-room Ramada Plaza hotel, convention center and water park to be among the area's top two “most significant improvements for our tourism landscape” in 2012. The other key initiative, she said, was at the Henry Doorly Zoo.
The challenge, she said, is for city and other officials to have sufficient marketing to help draw crowds to the growing hotel industry.
Back in the heyday of the horse track, business flowed into the cluster of hotels just off of Interstate 80 at the intersection of 72nd and Grover Streets, Markel said. The last horse raced at the track in 1995. The grandstand and other buildings were razed in the mid-2000s.
“With the horses gone, it left hotels hanging,” Markel said.
She said the 2003 opening of the CenturyLink Center, along with nearby hotels and other attractions, shifted much of the city's convention and tourism activity to downtown Omaha.
La Vista's Embassy Suites hotel and conference center, which opened in 2008, also grabbed convention business. David Scott, director of sales, declined to disclose occupancy rates but called current traffic “fabulous” and expects about a 4 percent increase next year.
Saying that “none of us are going to be all things to all people,” Scott sees the renovated Ramada Plaza as being healthy competition that will complement more than reduce business at the conference campus that has 500 rooms between the Embassy Suites and Courtyard Marriott.
The La Vista hotels, he said, attract a large chunk of Lincoln business and leisure travelers as well as agriculture-related events. He expects to be busier as surrounding areas develop.
Markel said she is pleased to see attention circling back to the 72nd Street area.
In the last five years, convention office records show, the number of central Omaha hotel rooms in an area anchored by 72nd and Grover but stretching to between 60th and 90th Streets grew from 1,800 rooms in 16 properties to 2,035 rooms in 18 properties.
With the proposed addition of two new nearby hotels (minus rooms to be reduced during the renovation of two others) the midtown hotel tally number will climb to about 2,170 rooms — an increase of about 20 percent since 2007.
Markel expects the Ramada renovation will help that facility recapture big conventions. Adding to the area's allure, she said, are growing shopping and restaurant attractions, including those at Nebraska Furniture Mart and Aksarben Village. Hoped-for changes to the Crossroads as well as entertainment events at the new Ralston arena to the south on 72nd Street also should be a draw.
Among key hotel-related projects in the making:
>> Wieseler also has purchased the 124-room Baymont Inn & Suites just to the north of the 15-acre Ramada Plaza and plans to transform it into a boutique hotel with about half the rooms but with creative floor themes. His plan will create more parking for the overall campus that includes the Ramada, Baymont (whose brand likely will change) and the water park.
>> The 212-room Omaha Executive Inn & Suites, on the southwest corner of 72nd and Grover Streets, is expected to be remodeled inside and out by a Rapid City, S.D., developer. Robert Pagan, co-owner of Dark Canyon, said the sale has not closed, but the nearly $6 million transformation plan calls for 30 fewer guest rooms and more convention space, bigger outdoor pool and fire pit area, remodeled lounge and restaurant and sleek modern exterior. Rapid City-based AcV2 Architecture said in its blog that the 118,000-square-foot property will be redesigned into a “first-class experience.”
>> The water park, connected to the Ramada and owned by Wieseler, retains the name CoCo Key Water Resort. It has undergone repairs and more work is planned. The water facility, built in 2007, includes three 40-foot water slides, an indoor-outdoor whirlpool spa, and starting this year is available only to guests of the Ramada Plaza. Previously it was open to the public, but Wieseler said he wanted more of a destination resort that offers the park as a perk for guests.
>> Farther south on the 72nd Street corridor, near Pine Street, a plan submitted to the Planning Department by land developer LFS/AK, LLC, calls for a new 92-room hotel. The hotel is part of a larger retail package that includes a restaurant and assisted and independent living facility. A project spokesman said the developers weren't yet divulging certain details, including the hotel brand.
>> A 119-room Marriott hotel is to be built next to the existing Courtyard by Marriott in Aksarben Village, which is near 67th and Center Streets and just a few-minute drive from the cluster of hotels at 72nd and Grover Streets. That new sister hotel is expected to open in 2014.
Kristi Jokela, director of sales at Courtyard Marriott, who has worked eight years in the Omaha hotel industry, said a midtown resurgence has helped the Courtyard exceed expectations the last two years. In 2012, she said, occupancy rate has been about 72 percent, compared with the Douglas County average of 58 percent.
Expansion over the last few years of the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus, which also plans a 7,500-seat arena, has contributed, Jokela said, as have outdoor festivals and other events at Aksarben Village.
“Shops, restaurants — there is just so much new and different going on,” she said. “Every day I am like, what the heck is going on there? What are they building now?”
Jokela said the Courtyard has done well with its target audience: business, wedding and short-term event travelers. She believes demand exists for the proposed sister Marriott, a full-service Residence Inn aimed at folks staying longer periods.
While each hotel brand has its own niche, Jokela questioned whether the 72nd Street corridor can handle any more hotels. “I don't know how they're all getting by.”
Pagan, who plans the Executive Inn renovation, had his eye on the 72nd and Grover Streets property for three years. His attraction was that Omaha was “holding its own” in the face of national economic woes, but not until recently did banks reopen lending to the hospitality industry, he said.
Pagan likes that the property is across the street from the Ramada Plaza, owned by his friend, Wieseler. “We are going to complement each other.”
Wieseler, of the Rapid City-based Century Development Co., said he was immediately interested when he learned the convention center-hotel complex was for sale. “I thought: 'My God, what a location.'”
His kids had graduated from Creighton University, so he was familiar with the city. Marketing surveys told him that “people love midtown and they miss it.”
When Wieseler took over, he said the property was severely rundown with about 22 percent average occupancy rate. That already has climbed, and Wieseler hopes to build it to 72 percent — largely from conventions but also from a range that includes weekend family getaways.
To start off renovation of the 610,000-square-foot facility, he hired an architect, Ken Sorensen of Omaha Design Associates, that would allow him and his daughter, Michelle Wagner, significant say-so in the redesign.
Soon Wieseler realized “it just had to be new, or I wouldn't get anyone in here.”
The overhaul includes newly dry-walled and painted guest rooms with fresh bathrooms, carpet, queen- or king-size beds, wet bars, granite counters, high-definition TVs. His personal touches include insistence on Terry Redlin lithograph paintings for suites.
Among other changes is the relocation of the main lobby to face 72nd Street. Visitors are greeted by a hearth area near convention and meeting rooms, which also were redone and offer space that can be set up as short-term executive offices.
Wieseler's favorite space is the plaza, which replaced the former, leaky Holidome pool. Guests now relax in a common social area with a full bar and seating area. A waterfall feeds a meandering canal and Koi pond. Street light poles line a walkway leading to the hallway and restaurant.
Though more work lies ahead, Wieseler views the Omaha hotel redesigns as a hobby.
“I really enjoy it,” he said. “It keeps me busy, keeps me active. And we hope it makes the city a better city.”
Contact the writer: