The first time real estate investor Peter Lewis toured the Radisson Plaza, he saw an outdated hotel that had been "under-managed" for years.
"It's a 1980s facility. No money went into that hotel for decades," said Lewis, president and chief financial officer of Madison W Properties.
Yet he saw potential in the hotel's prime downtown location across the street from Triangle Park. And he was struck by the beauty of Lexington and the panache brought to the city by the horse industry.
"I love the spot where the hotel sits in town, right on the park. It's the gateway to Lexington," Lewis said.
"The recession notwithstanding, the whole passion of the horse business is not going to disappear," he said. "They're going to run the Kentucky Derby every year, no matter what."
Madison W Properties bought the 367-room hotel and Lexington's World Trade Center in 2008 in a joint venture with Interstate Hotels & Resort and The Webb Companies, which built the complex in 1982. New York-based Madison W is the majority owner.
The company has made a $50 million investment with the purchase of the two properties, plus the hotel's $13 million renovation.
Madison W Properties, an investment management firm, specializes in buying distressed or out-of-favor properties, and ones in overlooked geographical areas, according to its Web site.
When the hotel was sold last summer, the Radisson franchise was terminated and the hotel renamed on Aug. 1 the Lexington Downtown Hotel & Conference Center.
Now a Hilton affiliate with access to that company's reservation system, the hotel will become a fully branded Hilton when some of the room renovations are completed, in about six months.
The top-to-bottom hotel redo, already under way, includes refurbishing guest rooms, the atrium, registration desk, grand ballroom, restaurant and meeting rooms. The interior will be completely repainted.
"We've spent an enormous amount of time on plans for the hotel," Lewis said in a phone interview. "I, personally, have been deeply involved with what we are going to do."
Lewis' company is relatively new in the hotel business. "This is going to be the flagship hotel for us, where you take an under-managed hotel, infuse it with loving care and go beyond the call of duty with local service," he said.
A glimpse at some of the changes:
■ A large planter at the foot of the escalators will be ripped out, replaced by a fountain that will mimic the Triangle Park fountain across the street, with steps and water. The fountain designer is Tamara Cassidy from Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services.
■ The restaurant will be redesigned and "reinvigorated to be pretty, the menu cool but affordable and the restaurant relevant again" as a downtown gathering spot, Lewis said.
"It's a spectacular spot overlooking the park, but over time, it was taken for granted. They never maximized its potential," he said.
■ More local art will be added, to give a Kentucky flavor to the hotel. An equine photograph by Doug Prather will be hung at the top of the escalators and changed out during different seasons.
Artist Seth Tuska has been commissioned to do a large metal sculpture that will be mounted on the wall behind the fountain. "I love art, and I want art in the hotel," Lewis said.
■ The hotel is searching for a local retailer to fill the empty corner at Main and Broadway. "I want a local person in there with a shop that becomes part of the charm of the hotel," Lewis said. "We will subsidize them for a while, till they get going."
■ Floodlights will illuminate the exterior walls, with two bands of colored lights around the roof to color-coordinate with major holidays. Lewis wants the building "to be a beacon at night instead of a big dark structure."
Unperturbed by the prospect of the proposed J.W. Marriott luxury hotel two blocks away in CentrePointe, Lewis said, "If in fact it gets built, it will only be good for our business." A downtown Marriott would give another hotel for the Lexington Center to market when it goes after big trade shows, he said. And Marriott would advertise Lexington heavily, he said.
Room rates for a luxury hotel would probably be twice what the Hilton needs, just to make the Marriott viable, Lewis said. Although Hilton rates have not been set, he expects them to be in the $125 to $140 range.
"Luxury rates would have to have to be well over $200 a night for them to make a go of it," he said. "If they come to the market charging twice what I am, and we have the position we have on the park, and I do the hotel right, I think it will only be good for us."
Turning his attention to the World Trade Center, Lewis wants more "cross-marketing" between it and the hotel. The hotel could cater events for business tenants who could send clients to the hotel for a preferred rate.
Lewis is optimistic about the future of Lexington and other smaller cities, saying they will benefit from the economic downturn.
"You're looking at a massive re-evaluation by Americans as to their lifestyle," he said. "Some of it is being forced on them because they're not going to be as rich as before. But some may be thinking, 'Do I really need to chase the dollar as opposed to a happier life?'"
International exposure from the Alltech 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games will benefit the city. Lewis predicted, "Lexington is just beginning to blossom. The best days of Lexington are still ahead."
Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.