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Shawn Vestal: Hurdles keep coming in Wells’ bid to resuscitate the Ridpath

Ron Wells is becoming leery of setting deadlines at the Ridpath Hotel.

He had hoped that work to turn the decrepit old hotel into a downtown apartment building would be underway by now. But he’s still working to put the financing package together, and the project has also taken a hit from a water pipe break that flooded the basement of the hotel and “fried” the building’s central electrical controls.

These headaches have delayed, not derailed, the project, Wells says. But they haven’t dampened his enthusiasm or changed his mind that his vision for the hotel is the right one for downtown, even if he acknowledges that some of his friends jokingly question his sanity.

“I don’t know when to quit,” he said. “Now it’s a challenge.”

Wells’ project would include higher-end condominiums on the top floors – taking advantage of those wonderful old Ankeny’s views – and a mix of apartments and small, inexpensive “micro-units” on the lower floors. The Ridpath, which opened as a hotel in 1900, closed in 2008 and has been mired in a variety of legal and ownership questions that have continually blocked progress.

Wells has purchased several of the 19 condominium units in the hotel and has been working for months to secure financing to buy the rest. Others still hover on the outskirts of the hotel, with possible intentions of their own; among them is longtime local hotel executive and businessman Art Coffey, who bought several units in the Ridpath and was at one stage seeking investors for a plan to reopen it as a hotel. Wells and Coffey had it out in court over the condominium rights and the creation of condo units in the hotel, and Wells won an early round, though Coffey has appealed.

Coffey says he has agreed to sell his units to the Wells group, but that hasn’t happened yet. He said he’s hoping that something new can come into the building; if the Wells plan doesn’t work out, he may reconsider taking another run at it with his hotel proposal.

It was three years ago this month that things took a dramatic turn at the Ridpath, after local attorney Greg Arpin wrote a letter to the city about the mess and the stench surrounding the property. The city began working with the complicated network of ownership to secure the building against frequent transient break-ins and to address a host of fire and safety code violations. Every step of the way since then has been stiflingly complex.

Among the many complications has been the central involvement in the sales of condos within the building by Gregory Jeffreys, who now awaits sentencing on his guilty plea to four felonies arising from millions of dollars in fraudulent real estate deals. For a while, local businessman Stephen Antonietti – who represented some of the building’s owners – tried to move forward a plan to reopen it as a hotel.

Wells got involved a little over a year ago, buying some units in the building and working toward financing to buy the rest. He said late last year that he had hoped to have the financing secured and construction underway by January, with units ready for occupancy by April. A chief reason that has been pushed back involves a complicated piece of the financing package around tax credits available to the property now that it has been placed on the national historic register.

Tax credits for rehabilitating the building are valued at about $5 million. Wells has been working to transfer the credits to a financier who would put about $4.4 million into the project. There’s been a holdup surrounding that piece of it, he said, as the parties waited to see how the IRS clarified the rules surrounding how such financing deals can proceed.

“It took longer because no one was wanting to pull the trigger on doing this until there is enough assurance that (it) was going to be audit-proof,” he said.

That hurdle has been cleared, he said, and he’s hopeful that the financing for the $17.5 million project is on the verge of approval. Wells says he now hopes that construction work can begin in June, but he’s careful to point out that such a date would depend on things working out in a best-case fashion. That hasn’t been the pattern so far.

But he isn’t wedded to a specific timeline. He says the proposal to put apartments and some top-floor condos into the building remains the best use for downtown; the large new hotel going up by the Convention Center is going to gobble up any room in the downtown hotel market and then some, he said.

“I’ve done projects like this for 35 years,” he said. “I’ve never been involved in one that’s so complicated.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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