Developer Jack Burbage was reaching out this week to offer what he says is a more accurate picture — literally and figuratively — of the hotel project he’s trying to bring to downtown Bethany Beach, where it would replace the longtime Bethany Arms Motel.
“I wanted to let people know what the hotel was going to look like. That seems to be a big concern right now,” Burbage told the Coastal Point, adding that he hoped to have elevation drawings of what the hotel could look like to present at the May 17 town council meeting at which the council could vote on some of the proposed zoning ordinances that could impact the project.
Burbage emphasized that he has employed engineers and architects working on the project in the specific tasks of making sure the hotel could be built within the Town’s guidelines and that it would not require any exceptions from the Town.
“They spent hours and hours, and they tell me the hotel can be built within the guidelines.”
That includes a limit of 31 feet in height at the roof eaves, with up to 4 feet additional height permitted for a roofline that is not flat. Burbage said he’d also continued to work with the Town once the inconsistencies between the Table of Dimensional Requirements and non-residential design guidelines were noticed — inconsistencies that could be addressed in Friday’s votes — and agreed to conform to the final version of the code.
That’s just part of what Burbage said he has tried to do to make the proposed 100-room hotel consistent with the greater ideas behind Bethany Beach and its history.
“I think all the property that I’ve done throughout the town carries on the tradition of the Quiet Resorts, and that’s what I want to keep,” Burbage said, noting that he’s a property owner in the town and has been for three decades.
“We’re going to build it in the Bethany Beach vernacular, just like we did with the Holiday House,” he said. “I’m not an outsider. We are property owners in Bethany and have been property owners since 1983. When I build something, I build it right. The Holiday House could have been cheaper, but we built it in the Bethany Beach vernacular.
“It’s going to look like Bethany and feel like Bethany, not like a monstrosity hotel like [opponents] are projecting it to be,” he said of the proposed hotel.
Flagship impacts to be all but invisible
Burbage acknowledged that his plan to work with either the Marriott or Hilton hotel franchises on the project may have given the wrong impression. Referencing a letter sent out recently by the Bethany Beach Landowners Association that he said contained inaccuracies and that he said he asked BBLA leaders not to send out uncorrected, Burbage said the part a large hotel franchise might play has been misunderstood.
“They said it would be ‘operated by a national chain, which would be inconsistent with the Quiet Resorts character of Bethany.’ But it’s not being operated by them, and I told them that,” he said. “If I can build it, it will be operated by a professional firm called Real Hospitality that does nothing but manage hotels all over. It’s their sole business, and they’re very good at it. And they would manage it correctly.”
Burbage said his interest in having a flagship hotel franchise involved in the Bethany project is twofold: (1) for the reservation system that would make booking a room at the hotel very easy, regardless of where the customer lives; and (2) for the quality he said is imparted by the requirements of the hotel companies — a quality he said townsfolk should be seeking rather than rejecting.
“There’s quality in the way it’s got to be built. It far exceeds what a town’s or anybody’s standard would be,” he explained. “The safety features extend beyond the norm. People feel safe because the fire and safety features are over and above anybody else. By tying it to them but not naming it that, we’re going to ensure that the place is going to be kept up, that somebody’s not going to come in and let the property get rundown.”
Burbage said that, under the association with Hilton or Marriot, the hotel ownership would be required to put 2 percent of its gross revenue in a fund to maintain and upgrade the hotel over time. He said the account must be separate and that the funds must be used and used to keep up the hotel.
“When I’m long gone, Bethany is still going to have a quality hotel and not something that’s rundown,” he explained of the decision to look at an association with a flagship franchise.
Burbage said the result would be the ability to offer rooms in a small Bethany Beach hotel — one that could even be called the Seaside Inn “like the old hotel used to be,” since it wouldn’t carry the flagship moniker.
“Marriott has their Autograph brand that tells history of the town in the hotel,” Burbage noted, emphasizing the resulting local flavor that an Autograph hotel in Bethany might have. “We’d just use their quality control and their reservation system,” he added of the flagship.
“It’s important to me, because I don’t want to change the character of the town.”
Project would replace Bethany Arms, and Blue Surf Motel
Some of the more controversial elements of Burbage’s proposal include the potential increase in density that the proposed zoning amendments could permit. A decrease in the minimum size of rooms from 800 to 1,000 square feet in the current Bethany Arms to 300 or 400 square feet (200 square feet livable floor area) under the proposed change would increase the number of rooms above the 50 offered at the Bethany Arms now.
But Burbage said he thinks the notion of the hotel bringing in more people than have traditionally been staying in Bethany is misplaced.
“We’re just replacing the Bethany Arms and the Blue Surf,” he said, noting the loss of the 30 or so rooms the former Blue Surf had before it was converted into condominiums and retail space. “The Bethany Arms has 50 rooms, and they’re much bigger than the rooms we’re proposing. They hold more people.”
With the Blue Surf rooms gone and the continued existence of the Bethany Arms uncertain, Burbage said, “That’s 80 to 85 rooms out of commission for people that were there that were needed. I’m talking about 100. That’s the same number of people, the same amount of traffic. … We’re just replacing what we already had.”
Burbage said one of the things the town lacks now is enough room for people to stay for events such as 5Ks and golf tournaments.
“There’s no room now. When we have events, there’s not room for people to stay. The Holiday Inn can’t carry them all. The organizer of one of the 5Ks said they were having to put people in Rehoboth and Ocean City. The organizer of golf events said they had no room for them to stay.”
Burbage said even those practical visions have a larger goal.
“In the shoulder season, there’s a lot more we could do a lot more for the town,” he said. “If you have a business district that dies, the town dies with it. We’ve got to keep it strong, and this would help do that.”
“We need to keep the downtown businesses strong. The businesses downtown right now are having it rough. We had a recession for four years. They’ve had it really tough. Some of them are going to say after the season that they’re not going to be able to stay open like they have in the past.
“A hotel would bring in weekend guests to help them stay open and thrive and have nice restaurants, like Sedona and The Parkway,” Burbage continued. “I think that’s important, that we have things like that downtown.
“We could have so many more events on shoulder weekends in the spring and fall. … Now the townspeople could enjoy it,” he added, suggesting events such as a jazz festival. “The people in Bethany will be enjoying that as much as the outsiders. I can see many of those events that people could enjoy — not just bringing in outsiders.”
Burbage said the hotel itself will feature amenities locals will use, too, such as the planned small-scale conference center and spa.
“The reason for it is I feel that this hotel is the people’s hotel, not mine — the people of Bethany. The conference center can be used by the town and for meetings, in inclement weather. And the spa would be used by local residents who want to use it.”
Moreover, Burbage said, if he doesn’t buy the property and transform the old motel into a new hotel, he and other townsfolk may find they like what ends up there even less than some of them like his proposal.
“If we don’t buy the property, which we have under contract from Wilbur Powell, it’s going to be sold. He’s decided to sell it. … It could be anything, stores… He has already told me that he had someone interested in it for a large arcade. Which is better: a quality, quiet hotel or something like a lot more retail stores? I don’t think we need any more stores in Bethany right now. I heard 11 of them are not rented for the season yet.
“I think we need more quality. We need something to replace what we’ve lost in downtown as far as rooms go,” he added, emphasizing that he is a current Bethany property owner, not some outsider coming in, as could be the case if the hotel project doesn’t move forward and the property is sold to someone else.
“Someone else could buy the property and build a Motel 6 there on the north side of Hollywood, and no one could do anything about it,” he offered, noting of Powell, “He’s got someone interested now, and they would like to build.”
Burbage says project is feasible, argues for zoning changes
Burbage said another misrepresentation in the BBLA letter was that a hotel project of the proposed size would be unlikely to be financially successful, due to the seasonal nature of the beach town.
Burbage emphasized that he had already had a feasibility study done by an international leader in hotel feasibility studies and that it had shown the hotel would be successful financially at the proposed size. He said the inaccuracies he saw in the letter particularly bothered him since he knows many property owners are out of town at this time of year and won’t get information from other sources, even though he tried to get the BBLA to correct the letter.
Acknowledging that the BBLA had offered both pros and cons for the project, he said that, nonetheless, “People aren’t really getting the whole story.”
Burbage said he was also bothered by the apparent attitude of some property owners who objected to the notion that the hotel might further reduce some existing ocean views when many of the town’s newer homes are so much larger and taller than older cottages that they themselves have done just that to neighbors.
He said the reluctance to consider shifting property from residential zoning to commercial zoning also didn’t seem fair to him, when the town lost nearly 3 acres of commercially-zoned property to residential rezoning in 1990, due the actual use of those properties.
“Nobody complained about that,” he said. “And that’s in contrast to the piece south of Hollywood, where there are three lots that have been used … since the 50’s as commercial, but they’re residential. So, it’s OK to downzone commercial but not OK [to rezone property] that’s been used as commercial for all these years? Well, I don’t think that’s right. If it’s been used for commercial, then it is commercial. I feel nobody’s been considering that.”
Smaller project possible, but questionable
With the potential rezoning of the parcels at 98 and 96 Hollywood Street deferred for council action as of this week, and the lack of a contract to purchase 98 Hollywood Street, Burbage said he was unsure whether the proposed hotel project would go forward if one or both of the parcels doesn’t end up under his ownership and zoned for commercial use.
“That would take another whole feasibility study,” he said of the potential to have space for fewer than 100 rooms. “We haven’t even gone there. We really want to do something right, and we can’t do it right without that south part. I’d never say never, but we haven’t done the feasibility study.”
Burbage said the issue of how many rooms the resulting hotel would have has two-fold importance. First, with the cost of land and construction, the hotel would have to be able to generate enough revenue during the summer to carry its existence year-round, as the case is with most of the downtown businesses. His feasibility study shows that it would do so with 100 rooms, but not how many less it could have and still survive.
Secondly, Burbage said, 100 rooms is about the minimum a franchise such as Marriot or Hilton would want in a hotel with which it would be associated. But he said there could be some wiggle room there, and perhaps with 98 or 96 rooms, or even 92, they might agree to it. He said that, in the end, it would be a matter of a break-even point.
“You can’t build something with 50 rooms and make it work on that property,” he said flatly. “It’s just too expensive to do. You can’t get enough revenue to make it happen.”
He again suggested that the number of guests the hotel would have would be comparable to the existing motel, particularly when room size and the loss of the Blue Surf rooms is considered.
He said moving forward with a project in which Hilton or Marriott were not involved was also a possibility, should a lesser number of hotel rooms be unacceptable to the franchise but enough that he felt the operation was still financially feasible.
“It’s just that Marriott or Hilton brings so much more quality to the project,” he explained. “It guarantees the property will be kept up, that it won’t deteriorate.”
The bottom line for him, Burbage said, is he wants to build a hotel that will not only be a positive part of Bethany but will remain so into the future.
“I care about Bethany. I really, really care about Bethany,” he said. “I’ve put a lot of money into Bethany because I really love it. I don’t want a hotel I’ve built to fall into disrepair in 20 years,” The franchise agreement “would guarantee that wouldn’t happen. It’s a protective key that I would think they would want, not don’t want.”
Again, Burbage acknowledged that the idea of a Hilton or Marriott hotel in Bethany may be offering an inaccurate image of the project.
“The problem is people think of an urban hotel. Everybody has in their mind what one looks like, like a Courtyard or a Hampton Inn. But my idea is to do something that people wouldn’t recognize as a Hilton or a Marriott. It would look like a Bethany hotel.
“If we had that Autograph series of Marriot, it wouldn’t have Marriott anywhere. It would be called whatever — the Bethany Boardwalk Hotel — but you’d get the quality of the association and the guarantee that it would always be kept up. They would have no ownership in it —nothing other than the franchise, and they wouldn’t be managing it.”
As to the potential purchase of 98 Hollywood Street, Burbage said he had planned the hotel without the parcel. “That doesn’t mean we couldn’t change it,” he added. “But we could make it work without them.”