Business Cover

Uneasy Lies the Crowne

For almost a year, Hotel Acadiana flew under the radar of local and state permitting and code officials as it underwent a $10 million renovation in its quest to become an elite Crowne Plaza. How could that have happened? Some hotels gain their renown through events, others become famous through Hollywood films, and many simply earn their reputation. But when the people in search of a particular hotel are fire inspectors, members of Lafayette Consolidated Government’s code enforcement division and investigators with the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors, you could be accused of — among other things — putting lipstick on a pig.

The original Hotel Acadiana opened its doors in 1984. Sporting six stories and almost 300 rooms, the structure remains one of only two full-service hotels in the area, the other the Lafayette Hilton and Towers. Separated by the Vermilion River, both operate on West Pinhook Road. Last year, Hotel Acadiana proudly confirmed it was to become a Crowne Plaza hotel, the elite flag of the Holiday Inn chain, with a scheduled opening in December 2008.

In February 2008 Hotel Acadiana General Manager Mark Arnold told Acadiana Business the conversion to the upscale Crowne Plaza would give his hotel a big competitive edge. He said the renovations would begin in March, with the hotel undergoing a massive “top to bottom” renovation and also adding a new restaurant. “It’s going to be a complete renovation. We will be a Crowne Plaza after we are finished,” he said. “We will be the second Crowne Plaza in the state.”

Arnold said the renovation should be complete by the end of the year but was unable to put a dollar figure on the cost of the project.

Crowne Plaza’s Web site now confirms that the hotel has been undergoing a $10 million renovation.

But ongoing safety problems at 1801 W. Pinhook Road are just now coming to light, revealing a massive construction project that has been operating under the radar for almost a year. For one, the project has never had a licensed engineer or architect on the job, says LCG’s chief building official, Larry Manuel. That’s a state requirement. In fact, the owner of the hotel — Zeus Investments LLC of Houston, according to the local tax assessor’s office — didn’t hire an architect of record until mid-February of this year. The project has been through two contractors and as of Feb. 20 still did not have a general contractor on board. Manuel says he recently objected to Hotel Acadiana’s request to hire a Kenner contractor, Quan Truong Inc., which wasn’t licensed by the state board until January of this year. Manuel says he didn’t want anyone only recently licensed and urged Hotel Acadiana officials to find a local contractor because the project was such a mess. He also says a local contractor who wanted to continue working in the area would be more accountable on the job.

So how did this project get so out of hand, without a single inspection in almost a year? “They told us it was all going to be cosmetic stuff,” Manuel says.

There is now ample evidence shoddy work was performed by either an unlicensed contractor or one without the expertise needed for a renovation of this magnitude, and the pot finally boiled over Valentine’s Day weekend when the Lafayette Fire Department issued a “cease and desist” order regarding renovations that were in violation of LCG’s fire prevention ordinance. The hotel’s management was given 48 hours to remedy the problems or the city would shut the hotel down.

“They just didn’t go through the proper channels,” says Robert Benoit, Lafayette’s fire chief. “We gave them a deadline of 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon [Feb. 12], and they met it. They’ve made some temporary corrections, and they can remain open, although our inspectors will check daily to make sure they’re complying with the guidelines.”

Acadiana Business obtained a letter written by Travis Morgan, chief of fire prevention for the Lafayette Fire Department, to Hotel Acadiana’s Arnold. In the letter, Morgan cites the building for various violations of LCG’s fire prevention codes. “[It] is apparent that no architectural plans have been submitted to the State Fire Marshal or the local Codes Department,” Morgan wrote. “In addition, no permits have been processed at this site. It is also apparent that work has continued without any inspections for plumbing, mechanical, electrical and some building/fire inspections.

“If no response is given,” Morgan continued, “[I] will have no choice but to have this building evacuated.”

It’s a serious violation of state and local laws for any public building under construction to dodge such inspections and most egregious for a hotel where guests, potentially hundreds, are asleep in an unfamiliar environment.

But Hotel Acadiana’s management appears remarkably unconcerned.

“We’ve been in touch with InterContinental Hotels Group, which is the parent company of Crowne Plaza, and they don’t have any concerns,” notes Arnold, who says he is the official spokesman for the hotel. The Hotel Acadiana is a franchised hotel that IHG licensed to operate as a Crowne Plaza. “They walked through and made a list of things we needed to complete in order to be in compliance, and we should convert in the next 30 days. It’s not that they’re any stricter than local codes, they just want certain things and certain levels of service and amenities.”

Benoit, Morgan and the chief building official want more than just spiffy room service. Architectural plans and permits, for starters, and documented evidence that the renovations are being done safely and correctly. “It’s fixing to get on track,” Manuel says.

About mid-year local officials thought the scope of the project had been expanded when a $500,000 permit was taken out on Aug. 26 by contractor Shane Welch of Welch Ventures LLC. “We didn’t hear anything after he bought the permit. We weren’t having any inspection requests by him, so we felt nothing was going on,” Manuel says.

The state licensing board’s investigator says the inquiry is ongoing and referred Acadiana Business’ questions to compliance director Brent Templet, who could not be reached for comment before press time.

“We’ve gone through two general contractors; that’s correct,” says Arnold. “They simply were not doing the job that was necessary to convert to a Crowne. However, we did our due diligence and were satisfied with the references they came with.”

“Obviously they didn’t check the resumes quite well enough,” says Jim Ziler, who just signed on as Hotel Acadiana’s architect of record. Were there second thoughts about signing on at this point? You bet. “I had done some work for Mark some months ago [Ziler was consulted on the renovation of the existing restaurant], and we sort of became friends. They had some bad experiences in the past with some of the people they worked with, and I told them we had to be straight up with each other. But they were in a bind, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll help.’ They’re nice guys, and I like them so let me see what I can do.”

Ziler was asked to provide information to LCG so it could have a shopping list of items that needed to be corrected to satisfy the city’s requirements, and he’s already done that. “While they haven’t started on the work yet, the city’s been very good about this,” he said. “They’ve been very cooperative, understanding and helpful, but I understand that they had to be firm when they said enough is enough.”

“Ziler and the code enforcement division of the Lafayette Consolidated Government are working together to solve the problems, and we don’t want to close them down,” says Dee Stanley, LCG’s chief administrative officer. “But if there’s a safety issue, there is no other option.”

There are certainly safety issues for Hotel Acadiana. Even Ziler is quick to admit that. But the architect isn’t convinced that the hotel dug the hole all by itself. Hotel Acadiana had help.

“From what I’m told, I think they got deceived by the original contractor and designer,” Ziler said. “They brought in a general contractor who said he was licensed and would do everything right. Come to find out, they didn’t do everything right. After they got rid of the second group, the city said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get this straightened out.’ And that’s sort of when I came in.”

Then again, this isn’t the first time the hotel has had these kinds of problems. Lafayette architect Kirby Pécot says when he did renovations on the property’s restaurant in 2003, the owners asked him to stay on for other improvements. Pécot started the job but soon after realized the contractor was not following the plans he’d submitted to permitting officials and the fire marshal. The architect recalls that the contractor was instead following orders from the owner. “Continued conversations with the owner did no good,” says Pécot, who was concerned with safety issues like the absence of fire walls to the deck. Pécot says he wanted off the job. “I managed to get myself fired by calling for a meeting with the owner, [a representative from the] fire marshal and head of [LCG’s codes division],” he says. At the meeting, in front of the owner, Pécot informed the officials that the owner wasn’t following the permitted plans.

Three days later, Pécot received a letter telling him his services were no longer needed. Fast forward six years and the hotel now has a new owner. The pattern for how construction work is performed, however, sounded awfully familiar when the hotel came back to Pécot’s door asking him to help bail it out.

He said no.

“It’s my opinion an architect should have been hired for that project a year ago,” says Pécot. “I was uncomfortable with the job.” There was no documentation of what work had been done, he says, and the project had not been permitted despite millions in renovation work. “The plans should have been submitted to the city of Lafayette so they could review it for plumbing, electrical and structural, and the same thing should have been sent to the state fire marshal to be reviewed for life-safety code.” Pécot says when he was asked to come on board, the hotel said it was two weeks shy of its planned opening. “To catch up on unpermitted work that had been going on for 12 months was too overwhelming,” he says.

Which may partially explain how so many violations could slip through bureaucratic cracks to begin with. “If work has been done but inspectors aren’t called, they have no way of knowing what’s been done,” says Pécot.

Monica Smith, IHG’s public relations manager for Crowne Plaza, responded to Acadiana Business’ questions about how this project went unchecked by pleading the corporate equivalent of the 5th amendment.

Have you made an on-site inspection, and can we get a copy of the result? “Proprietary.”

Can we access Crown Plaza’s manual that dictates to the architect and franchisee what requirements must be met to fly the Crowne Plaza flag? “Franchised hotels must comply with our standards pursuant to their license agreements, but the standards are proprietary.”

Does this owner have any other projects in your system and has this ever happened before on one of his projects, where the hotel was cited for various fire code violations during a renovation? “Proprietary.”

Meanwhile, Caroline Sanfilippo, another IHG spokeswoman, did clarify one issue: Hotel Acadiana is very much on its own.

“As with most properties that are in the Crowne Plaza system, this proposed Crowne Plaza hotel is franchised and is therefore independently owned and will be independently operated. IHG, franchisor of the Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts brand, does not and cannot control the day-to-day activities at franchised hotels, including the contractor hiring process, the renovation procedures, or the responses to the existing conditions at the property.”

Sanfilippo continues, “The license agreement with the franchisee requires compliance with all governmental requirements. The property will not be permitted to open as a Crowne Plaza hotel until the Crowne Plaza brand standards have been met. It’s our understanding that the owner/franchisee intends to cooperate fully with the Lafayette Consolidated Government to get the project moving.”

It’s worth noting, however, that the strength of any franchisor like Crowne Plaza is its far-reaching and reputable reservation system, which means online guests are already booking what they think is a Crowne Plaza in Lafayette — because that’s what IHG’s Web site is calling it. You have to move to the right of the online page, under Hotel Highlights, to read that the hotel is “now accepting reservations for arrivals after March 27, 2009.”

At least that’s what it read Feb. 16. Two days later the date was changed to May 22.

Arnold is still saying the hotel will open in mid-March. It will be the fourth hotel in Louisiana to fly the Crowne Plaza flag since Kenner and Baton Rouge (a Holiday Inn that was converted) have already joined New Orleans as Crowne Plaza cities.

“Any guests who made reservations at this hotel through the IHG distribution channels will be notified in advance of their arrival that the hotel has not yet opened as a Crowne Plaza,” Sanfilippo says, explaining that IHG will work to find alternate accommodations at a nearby hotel in its portfolio. IHG’s Web site lists 10 area hotels, including three new hotels on Kaliste Saloom Road, the Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites. If there isn’t an IHG hotel in the area, it’ll help guests find a suitable accommodation outside of the network.

LCG’s Manuel isn’t happy the situation got this far out of control. “As far as we knew they were just changing carpet and painting,” he says. Manuel says a fire prevention official first alerted him about work at the site, and he immediately sent inspectors out Dec. 18. “We went there, and we caught people with drills and we told them to stop. They packed up and left. We told Mark Arnold to cease all work and get a permit through a general contractor,” he says. “We went back, and they were back at it.”

In early February, Manuel drew a line in the sand. “I told them that I didn’t want them changing a light bulb without me knowing about it. I told them I’d evacuate [the hotel] and close the doors.”