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Shawn Vestal: Hammers ready to swing inside the Ridpath

UPDATED: Tue., May 2, 2017

Work is about to begin on a major renovation of the storied Ridpath Hotel, a downtown fixture for more than a century. Ron Wells and fellow investors have completed a complex financing package to turn the downtown Spokane building into an apartment complex. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Work is about to begin on a major renovation of the storied Ridpath Hotel, a downtown fixture for more than a century. Ron Wells and fellow investors have completed a complex financing package to turn the downtown Spokane building into an apartment complex. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

You might have been forgiven for thinking it would never happen.

The storied Ridpath Hotel – a downtown fixture for more than a century – had fallen into such a state since its closure in 2008 that it was reported to the city as unsafe. Transients moved in and out. Garbage piled up inside and in doorways. Graffiti and disrepair became the primary decorative characteristics. It stank.

Those were the obvious problems. A whole different set of challenges lurked inside the ownership structure of the building, which had been chopped into a series of bizarre and convoluted condominiums by a former owner, Greg Jeffreys. Jeffreys is now in prison on a variety of fraud charges, including some related to the Byzantine Ridpath deals.

The ownership pattern created problems all over the building – from legal entanglements to conflicts over utilities – and all of those problems combined created the Mother of All Ridpath Obstacles, which was the inability to consolidate the building under a single owner who could move forward.

On Tuesday, Ron Wells and his fellow investors in the project cleared that hurdle, finalizing a complex financing package with hours of document signings in Seattle that will finally allow work to begin on turning the hotel into an apartment complex.

How soon will the dust fly?

“Friday,” Wells said.

He expects a construction timeline of about a year, with leasing planned to begin during the work, which means the hotel – and a first-floor restaurant that is still under wraps – should be open for business before the 10th anniversary of the hotel’s closure next August.

A significant part of the 206-unit project will offer affordable housing under federal guidelines. The project will rent out about 100 “micro-apartments” – small studios of roughly 250 square feet – for rents in the $450 range to buyers earning between $20,000 and $29,000 a year. Other apartments will rent at market rate.

“It will support a population that’s already downtown working every day – baristas and store clerks and bank tellers,” Wells said. “A lot of people are making between $20,000 and $29,000 a year. I think it will have a very positive impact.”

Wells and his partners in the apartment project – Paul Mann, Mickey Brown and Jim Topliff – have been down a long and difficult road in getting the project to this point, but Wells emphasized that many other people had as well.

“I feel blessed to have so many people who pitched in to push it to the finish line,” Wells said Tuesday. “I just want to thank the team of cheerleaders and boosters and people who not only cheered us on from the sidelines but pitched in and made it happen. It was definitely a community effort.”

The apartment project is a $21 million job, financed through a complex series of loans, tax credits and other arrangements. A New York City lender, R4 Capital, is loaning the developers more than $10 million, financing which is supported by a single bond purchased by a Phoenix bank, Western Alliance Bank, Wells said. An investor purchased more than $6 million in historic tax credits to finance part of the deal.

The city is making a $1.75 million loan out of an affordable housing fund, and a state historic projects fund made a $2 million loan. And the developers themselves have made significant investments. Wells and fellow investors have purchased the condo units on the hotel’s top two floors.

It’s an exciting moment for the hotel, though recent history should make anyone cautious about predicting the building’s future. Federal agencies and private underwriters are involved, and have done their due diligence, and city officials who worked on the project spent a lot of time trying to make sure questions were asked and answered publicly, said Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer.

“I think the project was really well-vetted,” he said. “It was kind of discussed into the ground” at City Hall.

That doesn’t mean officials are certain of success, or even that the city will be repaid. The project is trying to create a market for downtown housing that is new in style and scope. Cooley said the city does expect to be repaid, but wanted to be sure and ask: “What if it isn’t paid back? How do we feel about that?”

The administration and most of the City Council saw it as a worthwhile investment in reducing blight and improving the downtown core. Cooley said the city has another dog in the fight: the desire to show major outside investors that projects here can work.

“We have a definite community vested interest in seeing this project be successful,” he said.

Before it closed, the Ridpath was believed to be Spokane’s oldest continuously operated hotel. It was opened by Col. William Ridpath in 1900, and rebuilt after a fire in 1902. It was nearly destroyed again by fire in 1950 and rebuilt as the tower it is today. In the 1960s, it was connected to the motor inn across the street.

Over the years, it was a key location for dances, political events and other big occasions. It was visited by celebrities including Elvis and Michael Jackson. The top floor restaurants – Ankeny’s was the last one – offered one of the best views of the city anywhere.

The hotel went out of business in 2008, and matters among Jeffreys, his lenders and other players in the property devolved into lawsuits, counterclaims, foreclosures and other problems. By 2011, city officials declared the property a danger to health and safety, and ordered a cleanup and various other improvements.

Meanwhile, various local investors circled the property with renovation plans, including more than one proposal to reopen the property as a hotel. Wells stepped up with his micro-apartments plan in 2013 – a proposal that became locked up in a court battle with the bankrupt owner of some Ridpath units for more than a year.

He cleared up the ownership picture last year. And Tuesday, he signed the deal that he hopes will open a new chapter in the long tale of the Ridpath.

At least one thing won’t be any different when the place reopens, he said – the big sign atop the tower.

“Nobody’s going anywhere with that sign,” Wells said. “That sign’s iconic.”