Next Up: The Fort Shelby is the Next Big Detroit Hotel Renovation

In any other year, in any recent decade, the $82 million-plus restoration of the Fort Shelby Hotel into a Doubletree Suites with a full-service conference center, steak house, sushi bar and coffee shop would be the talk of the town.

For better or for worse, the recent opening of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel has put a bit of the Fort Shelby's light under a bushel. But as its opening grows nearer, that light grows brighter and brighter.

The Fort Shelby opened in 1917 and was expanded in 1927. The newer, taller, westernmost portion of the structure was designed by Albert Kahn and houses the ballrooms and a grand marble staircase from the Lafayette-facing lobby.

It's been closed for 33 years, but all of this is being brought back to life, with an opening date projected for just after the holidays.

"Everything that can be restored is being restored," says Bill Aprill, the hotel's director of sales, as well as a knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide. He's proud to point out not only the staircase, but the exterior marble and brick – cleaned by hand – beautiful tile floors currently masked by construction dust and historic paint schemes that are being recreated.

It's enough to make a jaded Detroiter wonder if we just might make it after all.

Market forecast

Opening a new hotel in Detroit in these times is not for the faint of heart. The truth is, the coming year is not likely to be pretty for any hotels in Metro Detroit -- new ones included -- but building a heterogeneous mix of rooms is essential to the long-term health of the convention market in Detroit says Michael O'Callaghan, executive vice president and and chief operating officer of the Detroit Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Timing is going to be a challenge but, in the big picture, [the fact] is that downtown Detroit has had a smaller than average inventory [of hotel rooms] for a city of this size," he says. This inventory is essential for drawing conventions looking for a substantial base of hotel rooms within walking distance for their attendees.

Not every company can put up their employees in $300-a-night rooms, yet that's been the hotel market we've seen growing to date with the casinos and, of course, the Book Cadillac, going on-line. And God bless 'em. But Detroit hasn't really gained any new mid-market hotel rooms aimed at the average business traveler.

That's where the Fort Shelby comes in. Its 203 suites have a projected average weekday rate of $189 and a weekend one of $129.

The word suite is operative because the Doubletree brand separates the living and working room from the sleeping one. That's, on average, 650 square feet of living space – and 89 have enough room for two queen-size beds.

So yeah, we're talking lots of room to sprawl out those presentation boards.

Every desk has a four-plug pod and hard-wire internet – although the entire property is wireless. There are flat screen TVs in both rooms and the beds are triple-sheeted with hypoallergenic bedding and down comforters.

Other notes: the floor plan ensures that no guest rooms are next to the elevator bay nor the vending area – that stuff is all centered. Smoking is allowed only on the third floor and every room comes complete with a Wolfgang Puck coffeemaker.

One of the neatest design elements is that the windows all open – and corner rooms have six or seven of 'em.

Business class

So you've got that PowerPoint ready for action? The Fort Shelby's conference center is geared to making it go off without a hitch.

Don't believe it? Its 38,000 square feet of conference space will be certified by the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), a non-profit agency that keeps tabs on meeting facilities around the world. No IACC conference center currently exists in Detroit, and their entire raison d'etre is to make sure meetings run smoothly.

How? By doing things like providing dedicated AV and projector systems – complete with a 56-inch flat screen and three fiber optic lines – in each of the 17 breakout rooms (no waiting for that wheelie cart to roll in), on-site support staff at a manger center (copies, stat!) and a desktop-laden business center.

The hotel's two ballrooms are on hand for larger sessions – one seats 180 and the other, 200 – and there is a separate dining area for meals, giving everyone a chance to get a break from the room they've been working in when it's time to eat.

To introduce Detroit to the concept, the Fort Shelby will be offering an all-day meeting package for $99 per person in the first quarter of 2009. What you get is a meeting room, breakfast, lunch, parking and the aforementioned AV package.

Valet will be the hotel's primary parking system – they've made arrangements with a nearby parking lot and structure.

Fun stuff

When the talk is done, time to make a deal over some drinks. A Finn and Porter steakhouse, the fifth in the nation, will be the main dining spot. It will seat 120 and have outdoor seating facing Fort Street. Its wine room will have opportunities for private tastings as well as locker rentals.

There will also be a sushi (and drinking) bar facing Lafayette that seats 107 with outdoor seating on the street.

For that pick-me-up, visitors will be able to grab a cuppa Joe at the Bearclaw Coffee Co., also facing Lafayette, also with sidewalk seating to come. Aprill says the hotel is considering on-street coffee valet as an amenity to downtown workers hurrying to the office. "We're trying to develop Detroit, bring business here and create that vibrant urban feeling," he says.

Giving it that local flavor

Something that Aprill is particularly proud of is the Fort Shelby's commitment to local talent and investment. Financing for the $82 million project is coming from the General Retirement System of Greater Detroit, of all places – along with ShoreBank, HUD, federal and state historic tax credits, Michigan single business tax credits and a Federal historic conservation easement.

The construction is from all local union shops and hiring is being done in collaboration with Michigan Works! (conveniently located a block away).

Even better, Bearclaw is a Michigan-based company yet to open a location in Detroit.

The hotel and restaurants are slated to be open by mid-January at the latest, with room reservations being taken later this month.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh writes about development for Model D. Reach her here.


Double wide hallways, a unique feature at Fort Shelby Doubletree hotel

The taller, westernmost portion of the structure was designed by Albert Kahn.

Separate sleeping and living rooms

Finn and Porter steakhouse

Steel beams will support the new awning, at the front of the hotel

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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