WATERLOO — A hotel developer planning to buy and renovate the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center is planning to change its name.
The facility would be renamed the Waterloo Convention Center under plans by Omaha, Neb.-based Leslie Hospitality to acquire the 40-year-old city-owned building along with a major renovation and rebranding of the adjacent Ramada hotel.
Dropping the iconic Sullivan name was a sticking point for some in a deal city leaders believe will turn the outdated convention center from a burden on the city budget into a taxpaying business boosting tourism.
Edwin Leslie, president and chief executive officer of Leslie Hospitality, detailed his plans to City Council members Monday to add the downtown property to his company’s $500 million portfolio.
They’ve reached out to members of the Sullivan family about the change and plan a new memorial in front of the convention center to honor the five brothers who died when their U.S. Navy ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo during World War II.
The facility was renamed after the Sullivans in 1988 after opening in 1975 as the ConWay Civic Center.
“I believe that we can do a very strong memorial setting to honor them and their service and what they’ve done for the community and the country and not impact the name of the facility itself,” Leslie said. “We feel Waterloo Convention Center is critical to bringing in people to the Waterloo community.”
“I really strongly suggest you rethink the renaming,” said Councilman Steve Schmitt. “That is a unique part of American history, and I think if you don’t understand that you’re probably missing a great marketing opportunity.”
Veteran Jim Chapman said the Sullivan brothers are known around the world.
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“It’s really sad to see the name come off of the Sullivan Brothers,” he said. “That’s an icon for Waterloo. … Here are five gentlemen who gave their life up for our country.”
City Council members set a July 17 public hearing on a development agreement that would give the convention center and $1 million grant to Leslie Hospitality in return for a $6 million renovation. The firm also would get 50 percent tax rebates on the value added by the renovation, which includes putting the exempt building on the property tax roles.
Leslie Hospitality also is planning to buy the vintage 1982 Ramada hotel and renovate it into a Hotel RL. The plan would provide 50 percent tax rebates on the value added from the renovation.
Leslie said the hotel would see a complete interior and exterior renovation, which removes the inoperable swimming pool and adds an upscale steakhouse called J.J. Simon’s affiliated with Omaha Steaks.
“We’re more focused on the upper end scale of the lifestyle and boutique environment,” he said, adding the hotel will be “four stars or higher.”
Leslie, who said the current Ramada was woefully understaffed, said he believes the convention center and hotel can be profitable if operated properly.
“Our niche is finding distressed assets that we know that are in the right market that have location, location, location as the key factors but that are actually being underserved and are not being operated properly,” he said.
“I came to Waterloo because it’s a small-town environment in a big city,” he added. “You have a community that’s dedicated. You have a community that’s willing to support your convention center and willing to support the hotel. At the same time, the community’s tired of hearing the fact that it’s coming tomorrow.”
Mayor Quentin Hart and Aaron Buzza, executive director of the Waterloo Convention and Visitors Bureau, both said they have been busy attempting to assure current customers threatening to pull their events from the center that a positive change is on the way.
“Nine times out of 10 what we hear from customers who have a subpar experience or even an OK experience is service,” Buzza said. “(Leslie) is going to ramp up the service.”