Courting travelers – new Marriott

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New downtown Marriott set to open
When Milwaukee civic and business leaders agreed to convert a good chunk of the city’s downtown into a mall nearly 20 years ago, there were thoughts that the center could include a hotel.
After all, the site of the Grand Avenue Mall is on the site of a building which once housed the Plankinton Hotel.
While the mall was developed and opened in 1982, the hotel plans laid idle – until Burt Cohen came along in 1995.
Cohen, a native New Yorker who’s lived in the Midwest since 1974 and who now lives in Chicago, saw the potential for a Grand Avenue hotel during his eight years in Milwaukee working in hotel operations and in commercial development.
He isn’t the only person who saw the financial potential of a downtown Milwaukee hotel development. But Cohen was the only one to make it happen in the mall, thanks, in part, to his persistence and the help of the city.
“I knew there was a need for this,” Cohen said during a recent walk-through of the downtown Courtyard, which he plans to open this month. He didn’t want to develop a high-end hotel in the class of the Pfister, but he wanted a well-respected name.
Cohen praised the efforts of the city, particularly Dan McCarthy of the Department of City Development, in helping make the project happen, and in directing him to the Grand Avenue. “I said to Dan, ‘I need dirt.’ And he said, ‘Call the mall.'” That led to a contact with the Rouse Corp., developer of the mall, and the Michigan at Third streets site – ironically a courtyard – was selected for the hotel which would become a Courtyard by Marriott, a brand marketed toward business travelers.
Marriott, meanwhile, had been looking at another project in downtown Milwaukee, seeking to expand its presence into the city in addition to its suburban presence. The connection was made, and Marriott agreed to work with Cohen on a Courtyard hotel, with a few extras.
While protecting its brand, Marriott authorized Cohen to upgrade the downtown Courtyard, to the tune of a couple of hundred thousand dollars above normal Courtyard development costs. The building’s development costs have been estimated at $13.25 million.
“This is not your typical Courtyard,” Cohen says, noting its urban setting, its 2,700 square feet of meeting space, which is 2-1/2 times more than usual, its 70-seat three-meal restaurant, and other amenities.
The building’s façade also varies from the typical courtyard, with architectural features that complement the historic Wisconsin Electric Power Co. building across the street, notably that building’s columns. “Nothing on the exterior is standard other than the color,” Cohen points out.
Inside, Cohen was able to come up with space in the six-story building for 169 rooms. Ten of the rooms have functional, walk-out balconies and Jacuzzis; 10 are suites; 91 are king-bed rooms; 51 are double-queen-bed rooms, and five are executive king-bed rooms with wet bars. There’s also a conference suite which has a Jacuzzi and a conference table in the suite’s second room.
Just off the restaurant is the signature courtyard which also serves as the hotel’s access point into the Grand Avenue Mall. The first floor is also the site of the hotel’s exercise room and swimming pool.
Marriott, explains hotel general manager Kevin Osborn, wants to make a good first impression with its downtown Courtyard. And he and Cohen see pent-up demand for a Marriott in downtown, and note that Marriott patrons will now have the option of a downtown Milwaukee location in addition to Brookfield.
“They really get it,” said Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, praising Marriott’s move into downtown Milwaukee.
The mayor, noting a recent Equitable Insurance study which shows a real estate trend toward urban projects, called the hotel development “a good marriage for the mall. “It’s the future of the mall – mixed use,” Norquist said, adding that existing mall stores should benefit from the presence of the hotel.
Cohen holds a bachelor of science degree in business administration with a major in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Denver, and holds a certified hotel administrator designation from The American Hotel and Motel Association. He now owns the HEDA Group in Chicago.
US Bank, which has its Milwaukee headquarters in the Grand Avenue, is participating in the financing of the project along with the city.

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