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University Place getting major makeover: New owner IUPUI investing $13M in renovation of 18-year-old hotel

August 1, 2005

A hotel built during an era in which Indianapolis first laid claim to its title of Amateur Sports Capital of the World has a new owner that is spending millions of dollars to bring the structure into the new century.

University Place Conference Center & Hotel, on the campus of IUPUI, opened amid the fanfare of the Pan American Games hosted by Indianapolis in 1987. Nearly 4,500 athletes from 38 countries converged on downtown, including a throng of media that bunked in the brand-new hotel on Michigan Street.

The decor of the 10-story, 278-room hotel since has remained tied to the year acid-washed jeans became fashionable. The university, however, is changing its outdated persona with a massive cash infusion.

IUPUI used revenue bonds to acquire the hotel Jan. 1 from private owners for $17.5 million and to fund renovations expected to cost $13 million.

The former ownership of University Development Group was mostly led by family members of developer Bob Voight, who died several years ago. The university has owned the adjacent conference center, which is not included in the renovation project, since it opened 18 years ago.

The owner's willingness to sell the hotel and the university's desire to oversee its own assets led to the purchase, said John Short, IUPUI assistant vice chancellor. The renovation began in May and should be finished in February.

"We're literally stripping the place," he said. "It will be a huge feather in the hat of the university."

Officials there realize University Place and its 25,000 square feet of meeting space cannot vie for the types of gatherings the Indiana Convention Center, or larger downtown hotels, host.

Instead, their objective is to tout the updated amenities to attract smaller but more specialized conferences in which high-technology or life-sciences topics are the focus, and to bring more academic-type meetings into the fold.

"Our growth will not be based on our current customers, or pulling people out of the Hilton," said Joseph Hawkins, director of sales and marketing for University Place. "Where we will succeed will be on the regional, national and international level. That type of business is truly what we want to earn."

The updated hotel accommodations should make the adjoining conference center more attractive, university officials said. University Place already counts local corporations such as Eli Lilly and Co. and Rolls-Royce, and Hillenbrand Industries in Batesville among its clientele.

The hotel also can house relatives of patients from throughout the nation receiving treatment at the new IU Cancer Hospital. Construction on the state's first freestanding cancer center should begin in the fall. It is expected to open in March 2008.

IUPUI is sparing little expense to modernize the hotel. Rooms will feature both wireless and high-speed Internet access, in addition to 32-inch, flat-panel televisions. The 14 larger suites will be outfitted with 42-inch, plasma-screen TVs.

The rooms occupying floors three through 10 will be renovated from the top floor down one floor at a time to lessen the inconvenience to guests.

Work on the first two floors containing restaurants and a ballroom will follow. The sound and light systems in the 3,240-square-foot ballroom on the second floor will be replaced. The nearby bistro will receive a major upgrade, too.

On the first floor, the lobby, restaurant and sports bar will be gutted and given an entire new look, compliments of locally based Rowland Design Inc. Indianapolisbased Shiel Sexton Co. Inc. is the contractor.

The new restaurant will carry a "sophisticated" theme offering Midwestern continental cuisine. An original, wall-circling mural of IUPUI Jaguars athletics, flanked by several plasma-screen TVs, will provide the atmosphere for the sports bar.

On the exterior, the original brick that reaches to the seventh floor will remain, but the stucco on the top three floors will be replaced with a more energy-efficient synthetic stucco covering.

John Livengood, director of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana Inc., said the changes are welcome.

"It's probably time for them to do that," he said. "It's a good conference facility and an important player in the hotel community."

A renovation of the hotel should mean a boost for the existing two-story conference center, which features a 25,000-squarefoot conference room, a 340-seat auditorium and 26 smaller meeting spaces.

The university has the ability to design conference brochures, draft mailing lists and take reservations. Besides the Center for Continuing Education at the University of Notre Dame, University Place boasts the only venue accredited by the International Association of Conference Centers.

To become a member of the St. Louisbased IACC, which represents smaller meeting places, conference centers must comply with 30 standards.

IUPUI has employed the services of New York-based FLIK Conference Center Management, a division of Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group to assist in marketing and sales.

While University Place is outside the downtown Mile Square, the facility still is an integral part of the city's hotel offerings, said Robert Schultz, communications director for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association.

"[It's] still considered a part of the downtown mix," Schultz said. "We're pleased to work with them in any way we can to help expand the Indianapolis hotel market."

For those involved in the makeover, February cannot come soon enough.

Said Short: "It will almost be like repremiering a new facility."
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