Investors put millions into new high-class lodgings The lodging industry in Astoria is poised for a growth spurt.

Two boutique hotels under construction and two 80-room projects being scouted by developers could add 230 new rooms in coming years.

Optimistic hoteliers refute a 1999 study that found little demand for new hotel development here. Demand for newer, more luxurious hotels, they say, is driven by the planned conference center, the growing Lewis and Clark Bicentennial buzz and the discovery of Astoria by more affluent tourists.

Developer Robert Jacob's Cannery Pier Hotel project got under way this fall after five years in the offing. The four-story, 46-room hotel on pilings just west of the Astoria Bridge will have "a different kind of look," Jacob said. When the hotel is completed - by spring 2004, Jacob hopes - it will reflect the old Union Fish Cannery that processed salmon there for some 83 years. (Click on link below for related story.)

In downtown Astoria, Chester Trabucco's renovated Hotel Elliott will fill a gap in the high-end lodging market, with 32 luxury rooms and suites. He said he hopes to open the doors early next year.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

A guest suite at the Hotel Elliot includes a sitting room equipped with a glass wet bar sink, a big-screen TV and a fireplace.

The Port of Astoria has fielded queries from "proven developers" who are "extremely interested" in building an 80-room hotel on Port property, said Bill Cook, Port deputy director. Another developer has a "more than casual" interest in building a similarly sized hotel at the intersection of Marine Drive and Columbia Avenue, where an empty hardware store now sits, according to Astoria Community Development Director Paul Benoit. The names of the interested developers have not been released.

While new hotel construction may surprise some Astorians, Benoit said it makes sense.

Improvements such as new restaurants, additions to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, restoration work at the Liberty Theater and cruise ship visits are adding attractions for visitors, Benoit said. With more to do, tourists will be inclined to stay multiple days.

"I think Astoria is being discovered," he said.

A prior studyTempering this optimism is a study commissioned in 1999 by the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce that found "current market conditions are not at the level that would attract or support any additional lodging development in the area."

New additions to the lodging market, the report said, "will further dilute the current lodging demand and create a significant burden on the current lodging supply."

Occupancy rates in Astoria's existing hotels and bed and breakfasts are too low, particularly in the off season, said Roger Rocka, the chamber's executive director. But on the other hand, he added, "We need to upgrade our lodging facilities."

Trabucco, whose Hotel Elliott rooms will start at $105 a night, said he doesn't place much credence in the lodging study as it relates to a luxury property. What he does believe, however, is the "constant input" he gets from "Seattleites" who want to visit Astoria, but can't find accommodations that rise to the standards of the well-heeled tourist.

He said tourists attending a performance at the Liberty, visiting the area's museums and spending $100 on dinner for two want a comfortable, private, elegant room to stay in. Trabucco has $4 million staked on it.

"It's a very classic case of 'if you build it, they will come,'" he said.

The catalystSo if Astoria builds a conference center, will hotels come?

The prevailing wisdom says yes, and developers seem to agree as they stake out property near possible conference center sites.

The proposed $5.2 million, 700-person capacity center would be built near the West Mooring Basin, either at the foot of Basin Street, replacing the building that houses the Red Lion's meeting rooms, or south of the trolley tracks in the parking lot bordered by Basin Street and Marine Drive, Cook said.

Its success is dependent upon adequate lodging.

"It's important that we have enough rooms within walking distance," said Rocka, who serves on the Conference Center Task Force. "Those two things go hand in hand."

New hotel rooms will figure prominently in funding the project.

A 2 percent room-tax increase approved by the Astoria City Council in 2001 will help pay for the conference center, but the tax collected from the city's 523 hotel and bed and breakfast rooms is not enough.

"For the room tax to be sufficient, we need new rooms," development director Benoit said.

Long-term viewErhard Gross, who owns the Astor Haus Bed and Breakfast and often speaks for local B&B owners, welcomes new hotels, even though they could draw customers away from his own business.

When the 72-room Comfort Suites opened in 1998 - the most recent addition to the lodging market - Gross noted a drop in business. Since then, however, he has recouped his modest market share.

"In the third quarter - July, August, September - we had a 98 percent increase in bookings over last year," he said.

Gross said Astoria needs high-end accommodations to put it on the map as a destination and serve tourists that don't want to stay at a bed and breakfast

"In the long run, this is going to accrue to the benefit of lodgings in Astoria, not only to hotels, but to bed and breakfasts as well," he said. "I would be the very last person to discourage new rooms."

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