The worst kept secret in Kokomo is officially out of the bag.
A six-story, 123-room Hilton Garden Inn and an adjoining 22,000-square-foot conference center, representing a $26 million investment, is coming to downtown Kokomo.
The announcement was made in crowded City Hall council chambers Tuesday afternoon by a mix of city, county, economic and development officials, who expect the much-anticipated project to open in spring 2020 in the block between Main and Union streets, bordered by Superior Street to the north and Wildcat Creek to the south.
The extensive development, set to dominate downtown Kokomo’s skyline for years to come, will further bolster an area that has in recent years sprouted Kokomo Municipal Stadium, a luxury apartment community, increased trail access and nightlife opportunities, popular Geek Street shopping and more.
Included in the project will be a new 22,000-square-foot home for the Kokomo Automotive Museum, which vacated its two-decade site in the Kokomo Event and Conference Center in May.
The museum will have a ground-level entrance but will be situated on a second level below the city’s soon-to-be second conference center. Because the parcel slopes toward the creek, it will include windows and a direct entrance on the structure’s south side.
Also moving into the development upon its completion will be the Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau, the Greater Kokomo Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Kokomo Downtown Association.
“This hotel and conference center will allow Kokomo to compete in attracting new visitors, conferences and events, while at the same time providing a fresh, new facility for those that already know the value of holding their event in Kokomo,” said Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight.
“This downtown development distinguishes Kokomo from most other Midwestern cities with its proximity to other recent developments like Municipal Stadium and 306 Riverfront District.”
The hotel and conference center, renderings show, will be connected by a bridge that includes walking space and meeting rooms.
Development of the project will be headed by Dora Hotel Company, an Indiana-based hotel management firm. The company's president, Tim Dora, said Tuesday he hopes to break ground on the project this fall.
Notably, the Kokomo Community Development Corporation will donate the land to the private company, city officials noted.
Considered a public-private partnership, the project will include public money. But since the $26 million figure includes estimates – Dora Hotel Company has not completed construction bids or quotes – public officials did not provide specific contribution amounts.
“Once those final numbers are done we will have a firmer idea of everyone’s participation in this public-private partnership,” said Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp.
Involved into the partnership has been the city of Kokomo, Howard County government, the Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau, Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance (GKEDA) and others.
Additionally, the project still requires the completion of architectural work, government approvals and financing, and it will be dependent on a mild winter to maintain its current construction schedule.
Dora Hotel Company – which operates hotels in places like Indianapolis, Carmel, Lafayette, Columbus, and Kalamazoo, Michigan – will also manage the conference center in conjunction with the Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau.
In an interview after the announcement, Dora pointed to Kokomo’s existing hotel market as a reason to invest in the city.
“I think there’s some very good product here, but there’s some product that probably has lived past its prime,” he said. “In our experiences at the other cities we’ve done this, we can go in and build a really high-quality product and then lead the market.
“And we’ve found that the customer base responds to it and we’ll do well.”
The hotel, which will feature a full-service restaurant, will benefit from the growth of downtown Kokomo, said Dora. Therefore, his company isn’t looking to revolutionize the city but instead “keep the wheel rolling and get it rolling a little faster.”
Still, Kokomo is different than West Lafayette, which has Purdue, or other mid-size Indiana or Midwestern cities with similar landmarks.
But the conference center, from a hotel manager’s perspective, could close that gap.
“On this project, I’m really confident on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday nights. Our corporate will be great,” he said, describing business travelers. “On leisure (weekends), I’m more concerned because I need reasons to come here for families or events.
“But by virtue of having the conference center, we can do weddings, we can do lots of meetings, we can do a lot of weekend festivals, trade shows, all those kinds of things that would supplement maybe some weakness on the leisure side.”
To make room for the hotel and conference center, efforts are underway to vacate the block that currently houses the downtown CityLine trolley stop and Kokomo-Howard County Governmental Coordinating Council (KHCGCC) offices between Main and Union streets.
Both will be moved to 219 E. Sycamore St., next to City Hall.
Already relocated from the same block is the Indiana Department of Revenue’s Kokomo district office, now at 124 W. Superior St.
The building that housed the DOR office but still contains the KHCGCC and a trolley stop waiting area will eventually be torn down, Goodnight previously acknowledged.
A ‘stronger’ community
The process to bring a downtown hotel and conference center project to Kokomo has been a long one, and for the last year it’s been accompanied by public scrutiny.
Specifically, GKEDA President and CEO Charlie Sparks noted Tuesday that a Downtown Master Plan developed “a few years ago” indicated such a development would bring additional income and wealth into the local community.
That was followed by an analysis in 2014 by a Carmel-based consultant that targeted the location between Main and Union streets as a potential site for a downtown hotel and conference center.
The work then began, culminating in Tuesday’s announcement.
Specifics of the development, however, first became public after the Tribune reported details in July 2017 of a presentation by Sparks that showed, in preliminary plans revealed in PowerPoint form, intimate details of the project.
Now, it’s official.
“I think its important today to point out that we know that we have in this community a number of very quality lodging facilities and a number of very quality meeting facilities,” Sparks said Tuesday. “But we also know if we are going to compete for conference business, we need to have these facilities in one location.”
Echoing those comments was Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman.
“Today, our community becomes stronger,” he said. “This world-class, in my opinion, conference center and hotel is going to bring thousands of people to our community every single year. They’ll get to experience our businesses downtown, they’ll get to experience a Jackrabbits game, First Friday.
“They’ll get to experience our festivals, touring Opalescent Glass, the auto museum, our art galleries, our universities. We truly will offer a world-class experience to people that come to Kokomo and Howard County for a visit.”
And the automotive museum, said Wyman, will call the conference center home for the “next 50 to 100 years.”
The museum’s director of development, Jeff Shively, was no less excited, despite the reduction in display space.
“It’s going to be something unique,” he noted. “My personal goal is to make it something where you can go from New York to California and you won’t see something quite like this.
“Because that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to look at this thing beyond Howard County, bringing in people from all over the country. We already had people from 40 states come to our museum; let’s go for 10 more.”
Shively called the expected layout “very different” from the museum’s previous offerings. In fact, he said, a collection of galleries will be laid out with a direct focus on the incorporation of technology.
“The goal is very high-tech. We want to integrate a lot of technology into it because that’s where museums are going,” he said. “We’re going away from rows of cars lined up to interpretive things. It’s going to be a lot more interpretive; it’s going to be entirely a different experience.”