IOWA CITY — A $5 million project is underway to remodel the Clarion Highlander and Conference Center in Iowa City into a boutique hotel.
Bohemian IC LLC, an affiliate of Catalyst Development, on Dec. 20 bought the hotel at 2525 N. Dodge St. from Needham, Mass.-based Global Vision Hotels for $3 million.
Work now is underway to convert the Clarion Highlander — home to a well-trafficked supper club when it opened in 1967 — into the Bohemian, a retro-revival project that Catalyst Development President Angela Harrington says promises to stand out in the Corridor’s sea of chain-branded hotels.
“Boutique hotels are independent and interesting and unique, just like Iowa City, and it felt like Iowa City didn’t have an independent hotel that really celebrates where it is in the world,” Harrington said.
Workers currently are expected to finish renovating the southern half of the hotel’s 96 rooms within four weeks. then move on to the public spaces, with the full project slated for completion around late summer.
Harrington, who in 2017 opened the 45-room Hotel Grinnell in an historic high school building, said the initial draw of Iowa City was its market. Upon conducting due diligence on the Clarion Hotel, however, she said she saw the potential for something more.
“What I found, which I didn’t know when I put the building under contract, was that it has a really wonderful, iconic history (as a supper club), with a story that needs to be told,” Harrington said.
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“I was expecting it to be this distressed late ’60s, early ’70s hotel, and what I figured out was that thousands of people have gotten married there and shared reunions there.”
Current plans call for each of the Bohemian’s rooms to feature a record player, with vinyl records available for lending in a lobby library.
Other 1960s and ’70s throwbacks are set to include peace signs, rather than “do not disturb” signs, for doors, plus games and toys from the era at the lobby bar, including Operation and Mr. Potato Head.
The hotel’s conversion also entails installing large garage doors that will open onto an outdoor patio, fire pits and string lighting.
The property’s 450-person ballroom will remain intact, while Harrington said she is seeking to lease the historic supper club space to a spa tenant.
“Each public space will be very activated with fun things to do, whether you’re an empty-nester or a family with four kids in tow,” she said.
She hopes local residents, as well as out-of-town travelers, will spend time at the bar.
“In larger metropolitan cities, locals are really aware that hotel bars or hotel lobby bars are places to get together, but it seems in the Midwest that that’s not super clear sometimes,” she said
Renovating the Clarion Hotel amounts to a $5 million project, made possible with support from 12 investors, six of whom are Iowa City area locals.
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In the Iowa City area, there are 33 lodging establishments either open or under construction, constituting 3,396 rooms, according to the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
That data, recent as of November, reflects a 9 percent increase in demand for hotel rooms in 2019, over the same time frame as a 12 percent increase in supply.
With four more local hotels currently under construction, the demand is “nowhere close” to keeping up with the rate of supply increase, which overall has increased about 34 percent over the past three and a half to four years, said Josh Schamberger, president of the convention and visitors bureau.
As a result, “hotels start to panic a little bit and they start cutting rate — rate is the first thing to suffer,” he said, noting the cost to business.
Schamberger said the former Clarion Hotel had been “deteriorating” for years.
“We weren’t referring people out to that property because it was in such poor shape,” he recalled.
He predicted the property’s conversion to the Bohemian will allow it to compete in more of a niche area market of hotels with higher levels of service and unique offerings, like Iowa City’s Hotel Chauncey and Hotel Vetro.
“I think she’ll do very well,” Schamberger said, of Harrington’s plans.
Though some might question the need for another Corridor hotel project, Harrington said the additional lodging is “critically important” to keeping Iowa City competitive, in terms of attracting events, travelers and visitors.
“There will be nothing like (the Bohemian), which is what really excites me about the project,” she said. The market “is crowded, there are lots of rooms, but if you have a story to tell and a highly differentiated product, you’ll knock it out of the park.”
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