Just two months ago, the future appeared bleak for the graceful Crown Hotel, the 100-year-old grand dame of Inverness tourism.
Facing financial ruin and foreclosure, the owners fled after packing a U-Haul with furniture, linens and paintings. A few confused employees struggled to keep the doors open, but customers were few and far between.
While the financial future of the venerable hotel is still uncertain, it appears to be making a comeback. The Fox & Hounds Pub is now open for lunch and dinner, and local civic groups are cautiously starting to use the building as a gathering place again.
"I think it has made a real turnaround," said Mary Craven, the county's tourism development manager. "I have heard some really good things, and the staff seems very hospitality-oriented."
The Crown is currently being operated by Landcom Hospitality Management Inc., a Jacksonville corporation acting as a receiver until foreclosure proceedings are completed.
Russell Brown, Landcom's vice president for operations, has been serving as the hotel's manager. He said it was a struggle at first just to keep the utilities on; the previous owner, Thomas Dryburg, tried to have them disconnected.
"We stayed a step ahead of him pretty much throughout it all, though," Brown said.
Dryburg and his wife, P.C. Hyland, purchased the Crown in November 2001. The hotel quickly went downhill.
By August, Dryburg was accused of defaulting on the $1.15-million loan he used to purchase the hotel. The Small Business Loan Source Inc. filed a lawsuit asking a judge to foreclose on the property unless Dryburg could repay the balance immediately.
Dryburg and his wife told employees they were taking a vacation over Labor Day weekend. They have not been seen since, and Inverness police think they have absconded.
Progress has been slow, Brown said. They have hired 20 employees and want to hire more for the busy winter season.
"But I'm in one of those situations where I know we're going to be busy and we need more staff, but we can't afford to hire more because we're not busy enough yet," he said.
The 33-room hotel has about five or six rooms occupied each night.
Brown said he is working with several bicycling and bird-watching groups, pitching the hotel as a place to stay after spending time on the Withlacoochee Trail.
He has also attempted to boost business at the Fox & Hounds Pub by bringing in live music on Friday and Saturday nights. But Brown said he has been disappointed by the local response.
"I've had a lot of people say, "We support you 100 percent,' but they still haven't come to the Crown for dinner," Brown added. "But a lot of people feel jilted by the previous owners, and we understand that."
Dryburg and his wife offended members of the Rotary Club of Inverness just weeks after taking control of the Crown by announcing the club was no longer welcome to use the Crown's conference room for weekly lunch meetings.
Staff turnover skyrocketed, and Inverness police officers made repeated visits to the building to investigate disturbances.
In February, a small fire erupted in the hotel's second-floor air conditioning duct, forcing about 10 guests to evacuate. The cause of the fire has still not been determined, according to the state Fire Marshal's Office.
Later that month, Hyland was accused of slapping a 66-year-old guest during a dispute on hotel grounds. The guest, Betty Anderson, said Hyland became enraged when she tried to redeem a coupon for a free meal.
Then, in June, Dryburg and his wife were accused of failing to pay nearly $3,000 in tourist tax, prompting the county to file a lien against the property.
Foreclosure proceedings against the previous owners began in August. Circuit Judge Curtis J. Neal appointed Landcom as receiver during a court hearing in September.
Now Brown, who has other duties within the company, has ceded day-to-day control of the operation to James Holt, a 38-year-old veteran of the hospitality business.
Holt, a former nightclub owner, has managed several hotels in the Jacksonville area. A native of Perry, he said the small-town feel of Inverness reminds him of home.
"I really love it here," he said. "This is a very unique opportunity."
Holt, who started Nov. 4, said his biggest challenges are to woo out-of-towners back to the Crown and convince local residents to take a chance on the downtown Inverness landmark yet again.
"It's going to be exciting," he said. "I'm really looking forward to meeting everyone."
_ Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.