Monday, November 17, 2014

Westbank closure puts holiday party space at a premium

The dividing line between the Hotel on the Falls and the Westbank Convention Center. The latter has been closed since late August, when owner Dane Watkins decided to look for someone to lease or buy the business.
If you're wondering why there are barriers and a fence between the Hotel on the Falls and the locked-up Westbank Restaurant and Lounge, they've been erected for liability reasons, said Dane Watkins, owner of the latter property.

With the holiday reception and party season at hand, the Westbank's closure has put space at a premium, and the Shilo Inn is doing business like never before. Anyone thinking about an event between now and the end of the year has only Monday and Tuesday from which to choose, said Bill Gossett of Keefer's Island Restaurant and Catering.

While the Westbank's closure, which happened in late August, has meant more business for his catering company, Gossett said there was enough business for everybody. "We're sad to see them go, but very happy we can accommodate the community," he said.

Watkins said he is looking for someone interested in leasing or buying the business. Signs in the door to the restaurant say "Closed for remodeling," but they're waiting to hear what any potential operator might say needs to be done, he said, adding that he recognizes the site's great location and historical resonance.

The restaurant and lounge, motel and pool (now frozen solid) date back to the early 1960s, when they were built by Ferris Clark, who started on the land with two log buildings in the 1920s. Clark, the grandson of Idaho Falls' first mayor, built the eight-story tower in the mid-1970s and reportedly had plans for a second where the convention center and motel now stand empty. Due to age and declining health he retired in 1980, and died in 1987 at age 79.

After his departure, the hotel went by different names, including Best Western, Red Lion and finally the Hotel on the Falls. Until 2012, the property was owned by Jim and Sharon Bennett and Robert and Sharon Paulus. That year, the hotel was deeded to trusts set up by the families while Watkins bought the convention center and the land on which it sits.

In 2006, an Indian company called Om Shiv Ganesh LLC took over operation of the hotel and convention center. Doing business as Red Lion Hotel on the Falls, the managing partner, Bhupendra Patel, took out a $4.37 million mortgage in 2006. In summer 2008, terms were amended to reduce the unpaid balance to $2.505 million, then, in April 2011 the company got a loan extension allowing it to make interest-only payments for six months. But with the economy at a low, the company's struggles didn't end. In June this year, Idaho Hotel Holdings, the Los Angeles company that now owns the tower, filed a default judgment against Om Shiv Ganesh for more than $3.4 million, claiming they had stopped making payments after December 2012 and failed to pay property taxes for five years.

Brady Kraupp, who runs the hotel for Westerra Realty & Management, the Salt Lake City company managing the receivership, said he's optimistic about the tower's future. "It's in pretty good shape, really," he said. "It's a concrete building. We're hoping to have a new owner after the first of the year, perhaps have some chain come in and buy it. I could be partial, but we still have the best view and the biggest rooms."

Meanwhile they're getting dozens of phone calls every day from people wondering if they can rent a room for a party. Sales manager Tom Williams tells them to call the Shilo.