CLEARWATER — From the balcony of his Holiday Inn's new conference center, Jeff Keierleber looks out on a sunny view of Clearwater Pass.
"You're not going to get any closer to the water than this," he says, gesturing down to a seawall straight beneath him. Then he walks inside where workers are putting finishing touches on a big new ballroom.
You see, Keierleber is bullish on the beach.
In the midst of a scary economic downturn, this hotelier is gambling on Clearwater Beach. Even as construction cranes have fallen silent across Florida, he's pursuing two development projects here and envisions more in the future.
For starters, his Holiday Inn Clearwater Beach will finish its new 7,000-square-foot conference center and ballroom within a month. "We've got our first wedding here in late April," Keierleber said.
In addition, his company just filed plans with the city to build a new mid-priced hotel, possibly a Holiday Inn Express, on the site of the aging Port Vue Motel near Pier 60 and Clearwater's Municipal Marina. If those plans are approved in the next few months, he hopes to break ground on a 108-room hotel by the end of the year.
He's doing this even as other hoteliers nationwide are having trouble raising money for new projects.
"It is tough to get financing for a lot of these guys," he said. He added that his company, Decade Properties, has little debt, so it can build a new hotel with cash and refinance it later.
But seriously, is this really the time to open a hotel?
"It's tricky because you're building into a market you hope will be there when you're done," Keierleber said with a laugh. "Maybe we'd be better off waiting a couple years, but that'll be hindsight. In a couple years, we'll tell you."
The sweet spot
In 2003, the company acquired an aging, low-end Ramada Inn at 521 S Gulfview Blvd., gutted it and rebuilt it into a Holiday Inn. Rooms have flat-screen TVs and granite countertops, and room rates are typically under $200.
Keierleber says the hotel has a niche because it's less expensive than resorts like the Sandpearl and the soon-to-come Hyatt Aqualea.
Middle-of-the-road pricing is the strategy for the new conference center and for the company's next hotel as well. "I think we'll have a very competitive product," he said.
The small, yellow-colored Port Vue Motel sits at 101 Coronado Drive next to where a pirate cruise ship docks at the marina. Keierleber owns the motel and two neighboring parcels occupied by trailers for the Hyatt Aqualea's condo sales and construction offices.
Here, he intends to erect a 10-story hotel with six floors of rooms atop four levels of parking. It would be a limited-service hotel with no restaurant or meeting space.
Clearwater leaders began whispering about Keierleber's upcoming project a couple of months ago. They see a need for more mid-priced hotels on the beach, and they believe Keierleber can deliver.
Clearwater lost more than 1,200 hotel rooms over the last five years when they were bulldozed to make way for condo towers — and many of those condos weren't even built because the real estate market went south.
"We've lost so many of our small and mid-sized motels. A Holiday Inn Express or something like that will fill a definite need on the beach," said Sheila Cole, executive director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "Jeff lives on our beach, he doesn't just invest in it. He's aware of the possibilities here."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.