Heartbreak Hotel: TC’s Whiting
That recent blow dealt to The Whiting? Nothing this hard-luck hotel hasn't seen before.
TRAVERSE?CITY-When Howard Whiting first opened the doors of his eagerly anticipated downtown hotel in 1894, the solid brick exterior was its biggest selling point. Countless elegant wood hotels in Northern Michigan and throughout the Midwest had burned to the ground, tragically killing many unsuspecting lodgers.
The new, solidly-built lodging on Front Street, complete with barber shop, elegant dining room, stylish saloon and in-room sinks, had another advantage, too: It was affordable. With rates half that of its chief rival, the wood-built Park Place Hotel, and a location much closer to the train depot, The Whiting catered to traveling salesmen, lumber scouts, new arrivals and farmers. Though the historic building has had many incarnations in its 115-year history, it was meant to cater to the common man right from its very inception.
That could be because Whiting came from humble roots himself, born in Illinois but raised by his Traverse City grandparents after his parents died. His working life began as a shanty boy in the area's lumber camps, which gave the successful financier a soft spot for those down on their luck. He became known as the "poor man's banker" and gave many local businesses their start, including Gerry Oleson, founder of Oleson Food Stores.
Whiting sold his hotel early in the twentieth century. Another longtime owner was Don Wares; one of his biggest tenants was Woolworth's, which occupied the ground floor for many years. Despite the relative success of the lower-level tenants below, The Whiting began a slow decline in the late '70s, falling into disrepair and taking on a reputation as a flophouse during the '80s and '90s.
That image began improve in 2004 when Goodwill Industries leased the building from owner Mike Anton, and cleaned it up-literally and figuratively. The group did a cosmetic touch -up of the building and a dressing down of the residents. New rules forbid smoking, gambling, swearing, fighting, alcohol and drugs, but the group also provided social services to the wide variety of transients, parolees, forgotten homeless, and addicts who lodged there looking for a fresh start.
Goodwill's director of housing services said the mission was simple: to help the jobless find jobs, the homeless find homes, and the desperate find a safe place. Unfortunately, The Whiting's "hotel with a heart" phase was short-lived; downtown businesses complained that residents were scaring customers away, and subsequently, costs to maintain services rose. Soon after, funding dried up.
Then Glen Arbor cherry entrepreneur Bob Sutherland announced plans to open a Cherry Republic shop on the street level floor and turn the top two floors into a boutique hotel. Once again, there was hope for The Whiting, and its reputation veered from decrepit hangout to hot property.
In the summer of 2008, the opening of the new Traverse City location of Cherry Republic was seen universally as a success, but even Sutherland couldn't overcome the financial and physical obstacles of renovating the hotel portion of the building; the plan was scrapped. Cherry Republic remained, but the task of developing the uptairs hotel was passed on to Gene LaFave. He lead a group that made a formal presentation to the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority this past February, seeking funds and tax incentives to turn the hotel into apartments, at least ten of which would fulfill affordable living guidelines.
In the meantime, Michael Anton's son, Nick Anton, who had been managing the day-to-day operations of the ever-improving hotel and living there, was working hard to give the rooms another fresh coat of paint and fresh image as The New Whiting Hotel. "We have cleaned up the complex and clientele here," he told the Traverse City Business News in December of 2008. "I hope the community has seen and felt the positive changes. I am proud of what The New Whiting offers."
The buzz escalated when a variety of sources began whispering that Whiting renovations might result in 38 affordable housing units and low-income apartments. Supporters included Rotary Charities, which offered a $50,000 grant to support the project; the Michigan Land Use Institute; the Downtown Development Authority, and the Traverse City Housing Commission. Criticism of the plan was levied by Mayor Michael Estes and several City Commission members who said they'd heard negative comments from constituents.
At issue was funding. LaFave's Whiting renovation project called for complex financing to purchase the building and complete the extensive construction and remodel: $2.6 million would come from public funding, including a $800,000 land bank loan that requires city commission approval; $40,000 would come from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority; and sweetening the deal would be a $436,000 Michigan Business Tax credit and $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Last month, after much back and forth in the media and impassioned pleas for and against the project at the City Commission meeting, the proposal was voted down, 4-2.
"It's dead in the water," developer Gene LaFave told the Record-Eagle.
And so the Whiting Hotel is currently a downtown rooming house that the Antons will continue to upgrade, in search of its next incarnation. Month-to-month rentals for students? A teardown for some predatory investor? A future site of small, efficient condos? Only history will tell.