Corrections or additions?

This article by David McDonough was prepared for the April 10,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Marriott Makes Its Mark in the Capital City

If we build it, will they come?

The City of Trenton, the Marriott Corporation, the Trenton Convention

and Visitors Bureau, the Trenton Downtown Association, and the

merchants

of Warren, Lafayette and Front streets having been saying yes for

years. Now the time of reckoning is at hand. As of April 2, Trenton

was officially no longer the only state capital in the country without

a hotel. After 16 years of throwing their suitcases under a bed

somewhere

on Route 1, visitors to the city now have the option of a full-scale

facility within blocks of the State House. The Lafayette Yard Marriott

Conference Hotel has opened its doors.

So far, at least, the hotel seems to have exceeded expectations. Dwane

Martin, the general manager at the Lafayette Yard Marriott, has been

a general manager before, and he has opened four hotels in his career.

This is his first opening as a general manager and the experience

has been more gratifying than he anticipated. "The most surprising

thing is the impact this hotel has had on the community," says

Martin. "Originally I underestimated that. There has been so much

support and so much interest."

"I’m very excited," gushes Debbie Ayers, owner of Blossom

& Gifts Flower Shop on South Warren Street. "There’s a whole new

influx of people, new faces. Just the hotel employees alone puts more

people on the downtown streets. The hotel itself has built a

relationship

with the merchants, and the foot traffic — well, when you stay

in a city, you want to get out of the hotel, walk around. We are very

optimistic."

The formal opening will be an all day gala on Thursday, April 25,

starting at 10 a.m., but the hotel staff won’t be sitting around the

lobby until then. Several groups have already reserved space for

various

functions, and though an initial squabble with a labor union, which

brought out pickets on both sides, caused a couple of cancellations,

the others are going through.

"We’ve been taking reservations since the middle of January,"

says John Yake (rhymes with cake), the hotel’s director of sales and

marketing. "We have people inquiring about weddings and bar

mitzvahs.

This is the first Marriott Conference hotel in the state of New

Jersey.

It’s a great opportunity for us to have this brand in this market,

so centrally located."

The hotel is a four-story, somewhat unprepossessing building as you

approach it at the corner of Lafayette and South Warren streets, two

blocks from Route 29. The facade is a muted brown brick and stucco

motif, chosen to match the Trenton War Memorial. It is no accident

that the hotel stands on the former parking lot next to the city’s

recently refurbished concert hall. The site was selected for its

ability

to tie in to the War Memorial’s historic value, and the history of

the general area. Most important, it lies only a few easy blocks from

the State House.

If the outside fails to dazzle, the interior is another story. Joint

Venture Architects, comprised of architects from Ford Farewell Mills

and Gatsch, and Johnson Jones, both of Princeton, have created an

impressive space. The large, agreeably muted-toned lobby is a very

welcoming atmosphere, formal but comfortable. There’s a separate

entrance

for visitors attending an event, who can head right for their

destination

without milling about, confusing those needing to check in at the

front desk. A nearby lounge contains oversize chairs, a leather

banquette,

and a large screen television. Beyond that is a good size bar,

available

for a casual drink or an informal press conference.

The hotel is anticipating a favorable reaction to the

Archives, the ground floor restaurant, accessible to the public, with

outdoor dining facilities. "The name was chosen because the

archives

of the state of New Jersey are kept in Trenton," explains Yake.

"We had special showcases built, and we will have a constantly

changing display of state documents and artifacts, so that guests

will get a feel for why Trenton was chosen as the state capital."

The restaurant seats 175 for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is the

first restaurant in the city to feature an open, or

"exhibition"

kitchen. "With the current extreme interest in cooking, with the

Food Network and chef Emeril and all that, food preparation has become

almost a show," says Yake. "Guests can sit and watch their

food being cooked. We’ll also have food and wine tastings, and chef

demonstrations."

The restaurant may also be used to educate guests on the large

variations

of cuisine available in the city, from Chambersburg’s Italian fare

to soul food and other eclectic dining experiences. Says Yake: "We

welcome more and more restaurants because it enhances Trenton as a

destination. We have information at the front desk on where to go

and where to dine. There is a department in the hotel called `At Your

Service,’ and at anytime a guest can pick up the phone and they will

get room service, or help making a reservation at another restaurant,

or information on what is available locally in retail shops."

The hotel has 197 deluxe guest rooms: 119 doubles, 74 kings and 4

suites. Regular rates are $129, with weekend specials at $89,

including

two for breakfast, and group rates go lower than that. Here is where

the guest first becomes aware of how seriously the Marriott takes

itself as a business traveler’s hotel. Each accommodation features

the patented "Room That Works" amenities, including a work

station with computer plug-in built into a desktop lamp, two-line

telephones, voice mail and data ports, and an ergonomic desk chair.

With in-room coffee and tea service, it’s not inconceivable that the

business guest, waiting for a call or a meeting to be set-up, could

do his or her whole day’s work without leaving the room.

But it is the conference facilities that really set the Lafayette

Yard hotel apart, and give the visitor the sense that this venture

really could work in Trenton. There is a 6,015 square foot main

ballroom

and four small banquet rooms, seven conference rooms and an executive

boardroom that seats 20. The rooms have built-in sound systems,

speakers

tucked into the ceiling, drop down screens, sound-proof wall surfaces,

ergonomic chairs, and wide conference tables. The effect is

convincing;

virtually any kind of meeting and video or teleconferencing that needs

to be done can be accomplished in this state-of-the-art facility.

The hotel also boasts a 24-a-hour a day business center with six

computer

workstations, high speed internet access, color printers, scanner,

fax machine, and photo copier, all accessible with the hotel’s

keycard.

"If you are planning a meeting and you wake up at 3 in the morning

to make copies, you can do so," says Yake. "On weekends and

after 5, these services are not available in Trenton."

Other projects in the city, such as the Sovereign Bank Arena and

Waterfront

Park, have the county’s fingerprints all over it. The hotel, and the

new parking garage next door, are the city’s babies. City bonds, loans

from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and Capital Cities

Redevelopment Corporation, and funds from the state went to finance

the project.

The city of Trenton formed the non-profit Lafayette Yard Community

Development Corporation (LYCDC) to oversee the project. LYCDC has

come in for some criticism for its less than open-air policy regarding

its activities, and some $1.3 million in cost overruns for the hotel,

added to the original $54.3 million price tag.

City Councilman John Cipriano, the Council’s representative on LYCDC,

scoffs that "these were not cost overruns, they were enhancements,

things that were needed. And it’s not that we had to take more money

out of our pockets — the moneys were available, we just had to

make them come forth. (The overrun costs will come from state

environmental

tax credits, refinancing of the bonds, and some grant moneys). When

you have a cost total of $60 million, what’s a $1.3 million overrun?

Most of that money, we are going to get back. If the hotel gets 60

percent capacity, and we bring in $100 million in revenue, we get

a six percent sales tax that comes back to the city."

The next step was to secure the blessings of the state’s Historic

Sites Council, and the Department of Environmental Protection. Before

the War Memorial was built, the site had housed a man-made canal.

Eleven millstones were found on the property during hotel

construction,

nine of which are on display at the Barracks. (In the 1930s, as a

part of a WPA project, the canal had been filled in and a magnificent

pedestrian site, Stacy Park, had been built. Parts of the park began

to disappear after World War II, giving way to the parking lot; the

remnants of Stacy Park can still be found on the west side of Route

29, on the banks of the Delaware.)

The area remains a flood plain, however. To that end, an elaborate

two-part foundation, preventing ground water from leaching and getting

into the water system, had to be installed. The DEP’s main concern

was the Assunpink Creek, which flows through the property, and floods

regularly. Since the site had had so many uses over the years,

concerns

regarding contaminates had to be addressed.

It is important to remember that other hotels have come

and gone in the capital city. During Trenton’s heyday as a

manufacturing

center, the Stacy-Trent Hotel, built in 1921 in the epic and grand

manner of luxury hotels in pre-Depression days, stood on West State

Street as a monument to the thriving nature of the capital city. By

the 1960s, with the decline of Trenton’s industry and the steady

exodus

of the middle-class to the suburbs, the hotel fell on hard times.

It was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a state building. The

Hildebrecht,

also on West State, which opened in 1929, was a derelict by the time

of its demise in 1984.

In the post-war era, Trenton entered a time when everything old was

demolished to make way for the growing need for government facilities

all over the downtown. Elegant mansions like the Washington Roebling

house, the West State Street home of the man who built the Brooklyn

Bridge, were torn down and replaced with character-less office

buildings

and parking lots, populated by state workers and cars, all of which

disappeared from the city promptly at 4 o’clock, leaving the downtown

area shuttered and deserted.

The last attempt at a full-scale hotel was the Capitol Plaza, a

15-story

former Holiday Inn on State Street, which opened in 1981 and closed

in 1986. That hotel was limited to rooms for rent; it had no

conference

facility. That was part of its downfall, but its failure still has

fingers pointing; why, the nay-sayers ask, is there any reason to

think that this new hotel will succeed where others didn’t?

The answer may lie, curiously enough, in a superhighway. Not the roads

leading into Trenton itself, certainly not in the new Route 29 tunnel,

which, in its rule-changing maelstrom, may eventually be open only

to bicyclists over 50 and neutered German shepherds. It is the

information

superhighway that may help restore Trenton’s glory. Modern technology

and the Internet have changed the way the world does business, and

Trenton state government, for so long an intimate affair where deals

were made in corners by men who had known each other all their lives,

has given way to a sensibility that the business of government is

no longer regional. Businesses, consultants, and lobbyists pour into

Trenton from all over the country. The trouble is, like all the state

workers, they are gone from town come twilight. Until now, perhaps.

For those who stay the hosts will include people like Dwane Martin

and John Yake, both of whom are excited by the prospect of being part

of a turnaround for the city.

Martin was the seventh of 12 children in Fort Worth, Texas, where

his father was a construction worker. After serving in the Army for

six years, he majored in accounting at Monterey Peninsula Community

College and Golden Gate University. While still in school he started

working in the hotel industry, first in housekeeping, then in

accounting

and in restaurant management.

As the controller, he opened a new property in Esmeralda, California.

Marriott bought that chain, and he worked at the Marriott in San Diego

and as general manager of the La Guardia Marriott. He and his wife

— they have children ages 9 and 13 — have bought a home in

Pennington. "We are looking forward to being a member of the

community,"

says Martin.

For Yake, the assignment to central New Jersey is a homecoming.

"This

Marriott was kind of special for me. My parents are both from Trenton,

and they still live in West Windsor," says Yake. "I remember

the city in the 1960s when we shopped at Sears. It is exciting to

be part of the revitalization."

Yake’s father was a residential builder, and his mother worked in

the school system. He always knew he wanted to go into the hotel

business,

and he majored in hotel and restaurant management at Fairleigh

Dickinson,

Class of 1982. He was director of restaurants when the Princeton

Marriott

opened in 1988 and moved to catering director.

"That gave me a terrific grasp on the market here," says Yake.

From 1996 to 2001 he worked on Wall Street, first at the Marriott

World Trade Center and then at the Marriott Financial Center. Perhaps

providentially, he left New York in May, 2001, to return to Trenton

to open the Lafayette Yard Marriott. He lives in Ewing with his wife

and two school-age daughters.

Another person with a deep interest in the success of the new hotel

is Sally Lane, head of the Trenton Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"For years, we have had to tell travel agents that there is no

place for people to stay in Trenton," says Lane, whose roots in

the Trenton area are deep — her great-grandfather, James Kerney,

was editor and publisher of the Trenton Times. Lane grew up in

Harbourton,

graduated from Barnard College, and spent nearly 20 years as an editor

and columnist for the two Trenton dailies before single-handedly

starting

the Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1991.

"Business travelers do not want to have a rental car and travel

up and down Route 1 with clients or business associates that they

may be meeting for the first time," Lane continues. "They

want to get from the airport to their destination and be able to walk

into the state complex. Every feasibility study shows what the market

is. It is from Sunday through Thursday. Our hope for the weekend

market

is that we can grow a regional tourist base."

It is all part of the larger picture, of course, a dream

that started with Waterfront Park and moved ahead with the Sovereign

Bank Arena, and possibly, the film industry complex off of Route 129

(still very much in the rumor phase), and the Foundry restaurant and

sports bar across from the Arena. There is still a great deal of work

to be done. Streets around the hotel are being improved; there still

many other streets that need work. It is still somewhat confusing

to gain access to the hotel via Route 29.

"There were 23 movie theaters in the city in the 1940s and 1950s;

there are none today," says John Cipriano. "We’ve got to beef

up the downtown with bowling alleys, bookstores, whatever it takes.

We need better cab services for visitors. The cab people had better

start policing themselves and improving the quality of their vehicles.

We need established rates and standards. And New Jersey Transit needs

to be more responsible with its schedules for buses."

Rightfully, Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer claimed the honor of being

the first guest to register at the new hotel. The mayor has recently

secured a $33 million federal grant to rebuild the city’s rundown

Amtrak station. "It looks like a Roy Rogers that has a train

station

in it," say the mayor. "We want a major renovation, to give

people a really good feeling when they enter Trenton.

"Perception is reality. It used to be the perception was,

`Trenton?

Don’t ever go there.’ Now, people come in for games, and we have a

first-class hotel and conference center that will provide local jobs

(an estimated 160 jobs, according to some figures, approximately 80

percent going to local residents), that will improve their quality

of life. That, in turn, will make Trenton a tourist destination. When

you spend the night in the city, you spend more money in the city,

and you create more jobs."

The question must be posed: what if the hotel just doesn’t work?

Palmer

answers: "It would be very hard for it not to be successful,

because

the minimum amount of occupancy needed is 66 percent. If it’s not

successful, the city guaranteed the bonds — we’d be on the hook.

But we’ve already got $3 million worth of bookings. And frankly, it’s

time we stop sending our money up Route 1."


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