It's easy to be skeptical about the Mining Exchange Hotel project. In fact, it's only sensible in this economy to question how viable a $24 million hotel and entertainment complex is for Colorado Springs' downtown.
But when you lock eyes with Perry Sanders Jr., the attorney-turned-developer that Rolling Stone has described as a "mercurial Louisianan" who's "brilliant" and "iconoclastic," you get the sense this guy could probably move Cheyenne Mountain if he set himself to it. And when you learn that his cohort, Raphael Sassower, is a philosophy professor, you figure sufficient thought's been put into this whole thing.
What the duo is poised to do could reinvigorate downtown, starting with a 110-year-old building that at the turn of the 20th century housed the most active stock exchange in the nation.
'Grand urban resort'
As they stroll confidently past an original, roughly foot-thick, ornate vault door in what will become the Mining Exchange Hotel's main lobby, the partners throw out words like "synergy" while describing how they hope to merge aesthetics, entertainment, fine dining and wellness offerings (like a spa) aimed at "mature adults."
The "grand urban resort," tentatively set to open in January, 2011, includes:
• a total of 119 hotel rooms between the Mining Exchange Building at 8 S. Nevada Ave., and adjacent Independence and Freeman Telegraph buildings;
• a rooftop deck on the Mining Exchange Building that may feature an Olympic-length swimming pool;
• Il Postino, a restaurant to occupy what's now Tre Luna Downtown Event Center, with a focus on Italian fusion with a Mediterranean flair;
• Springs Orleans, a stamped concrete patio café spanning the full length of the alley between the Mining Exchange and Independence buildings, which will serve café au lait and beignets (plus food from all complex eateries);
• X200 restaurant, with a menu of 200 tapas and 200 wines by the glass, enabled by a "sophisticated and expensive" system to allow opened bottles to be preserved for close to two weeks;
• an 8,000-square-foot solar array atop the Independence Building, which Perry hopes will generate 10 percent of all power the complex needs;
• 24-hour valet service, using the city parking garage at the corner of Nevada and Colorado avenues;
• and a skyway over the alley between Pikes Peak and Colorado avenues linking to entertainment offerings in the former Municipal Utilities Building at 18 S. Nevada Ave.
This utilities building, with original Art Deco fixtures out of the 1930s, is the only spot the partners don't yet own. But they're leasing with intent to buy, and they've already got a major plan for it.
Sanders guarantees that at least four pilot episodes of a television program called Bullseye With Dr. Dale Archer will be shot there before August's end, featuring "big-time national guests" being interviewed by the pop psychiatrist in front of a live studio audience. Sanders will then shop it in hopes of landing a regular national show to compete with the likes of Oprah and Dr. Phil. Worst-case scenario, he says, "we'll be doing broadcast of some variety."
Henri Chaperont, owner of what used to be La Petite Maison (now Le Bistro) on the west side, got an up-close view of what Sassower, Sanders and their dozens of workers are doing. He worked with them for four months, designing banquet and room service menus and writing an employee manual, before returning to his restaurant.
"It's an awesome project," Chaperont says, "and it will only help downtown's economy."
Sassower owns 25 percent of two successful Catalan tapas restaurants in New York, one of which features one of the largest Spanish wine lists in the country. But he's also a locally known quantity.
His resumé includes several other Springs renovations — including that of the Warehouse Restaurant and Gallery (which he owned and operated until selling to Lawrence "Chip" Johnson in mid-2007), the building that the Independent currently occupies, at 235 S. Nevada Ave., and Kimball's Peak Three Theater.
The 54-year-old also teaches full-time at UCCS and calls that his true passion. In fact, he had no designs for another building purchase until he met Sanders, who with a prior partner bought the three buildings in 2006.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Sassower, who owns 10 percent of the project. "If I'm gonna do a project like this, it's going to have to have historic or cultural significance. I'm not doing this for fame, glory or money."
He adds, "For me, it's a moral responsibility to preserve and to revive and invest money and bring it back to its glorious days."
Sanders, 55, only arrived in the Springs in 2004, as lead counsel on a class action suit against Schlage Lock, which polluted the Widefield aquifer. While here, Hurricane Rita hit Louisiana, and Sanders' law office in Lake Charles was shut down for 18 months; his houses also sustained serious damage.
"So I was here by default," he says. "It was a protracted deal where I fell in love with this area."
Most of Sanders' work revolves around environmental law. (Though a tour of perrysanders.name reveals that he's also a singer/songwriter and an advocate for economic reform and drug legalization.) He's recently been asked to represent an oyster business "that's almost certainly going to be affected" by the Gulf oil spill, and is also "wrapping up a significant case" with ConocoPhillips.
But Sanders has taken on some entertainment and civil rights cases, too. An April 19 New York Times article caught up with him on the case that got him into a 2005 Rolling Stone article, a "case [that] has been around so long it has outlasted its original judge." That would be the eight-year-old wrongful-death, civil rights claim against the Los Angeles Police Department on behalf of the Notorious B.I.G.'s children, widow, mother and estate. Since the case was dismissed without prejudice, Sanders could re-file in the future.
"I'm blessed to get asked on a regular basis to do really great cases all over the country," he says. "I'm extremely choosy about it."
You could say Sanders' interest in architecture chose him.
"My family was huge in the construction biz — Sanders Supply was like a small Home Depot," he says. "I come from doing construction as kid in the summers. I just like it. It gives me pleasure in bringing old stuff back to life and modernizing it."
When he was first shown the Mining Exchange, built by Winfield Scott Stratton, one of the wealthiest men in an era when roughly one-third of the country's millionaires lived in Colorado Springs, he and his partner at the time only had 24 hours to make a decision to buy.
"When we bought it, it had an external layer on it since the 60s. Nobody knew what was there," he says, adding, "We've had to spend a relatively small fortune to get back to these perfect bones."
Aside from original safes on each floor and decorative stair railings (from which they've lifted the hotel's new logo), Sanders says he's "reaped the benefits of someone's real foresightful way of building."
He's been told that outside of Chicago and New York, this was the only building at the time constructed with hot rivet construction, with the exterior being a solid granite base inside and out. Take a virtual tour at tlkgallery.com/MEVtour/MiningExchange-VTour.html and you'll see 12-foot ceilings above a lavish hotel room with granite and travertine floors and huge windows (now preserved behind energy-efficient and nearly soundproof new windows).
"We're in a situation where we took over a historic building and got lucky and found all kinds of amazing stuff," Sanders says. "If this had to be built truly from scratch, it wouldn't work. Our room price point would have to be so high that you couldn't make money."
On that note, why are they so convinced it will work?
"It's not a 'We'll build it and they'll come' scenario," says Sassower. "We contracted with HVS — this is the largest international hospitality research firm. They confirmed that A, there is a need, and B, competitively, there's a niche for this kind of a boutique hotel." (Denver has a handful, like Hotel Monaco and Hotel Teatro.)
"We can charge a reasonable amount of money, even in a depressed market, and make it work, according to people more knowledgeable than we are about the macro markets," says Sanders, citing a second feasibility study done by his lender.
Sassower also sees potential clients in "three heavy hitters in terms of downtown employment": the U.S. Olympic Committee, El Paso Natural Gas Co. and Booz Allen Hamilton, who attract international guests.
"Having lived here 24 years, I've seen the character of downtown change over time," Sassower says. "I think right now it's leaning more towards clubs as opposed to mature entertainment ... we're just tilting the balance to the other side."
Leaving the numbers behind, Sanders returns to his aesthetic sensibilities and instinct: "I personally know what my favorite-type properties are in any city I go to that has a vibrant downtown. Something in the pit of my stomach tells me this is a great idea."