WILLIAMSBURG — Shielded by overgrown shrubs, the vacant Williamsburg Travel Inn sits on a small hill overlooking Richmond Road.
Ivy lines sides of the building, and some windows and doors are covered with plywood. Inside, furniture, empty beer bottles and trash can be found in many of the rooms. Out front, a sign reads “AVAILABLE — MID ATLANTIC COMMERCIAL.”
The inn has been vacant since 2012.
Down the street, a Firestone Complete Auto Care store has taken the place of the razed Days Inn Williamsburg Central. Several miles away, on Capitol Landing Road, the Copper Fox Distillery operates out of the former Lord Paget Motel. On York Street, the Quarterpath Inn has become the Flats of Williamsburg, an affordable housing complex.
Hotel visitation has decreased over the years, and Greater Williamsburg’s once-booming hotel industry is now punctuated with vacancies, renovations, redevelopment and long-term guests in need of affordable housing.
In response, local hoteliers are pushing their properties into new lives, attempting to regain revenue lost by a declining number of guests.
“When they’re outdated and not viable, you’ve got to look at alternative uses,” said Jim Noel, York County’s economic development director.
New uses also offer new avenues to profits, said Williamsburg City Councilman Doug Pons.
“This is not the designated use of our properties,” said Pons, who was the owner of the former Quarterpath Inn. “But we are finding more ways to generate revenue.”
While local hoteliers say their industry is on the upswing elsewhere across the country, hotels in Williamsburg paint a different picture.
“It’s a good time to be in the hotel business — just not in Williamsburg,” said Neil Chalkley, general manager of the Best Western Historic District.
Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association President Ron Kirkland said a decline in tourism in the area has affected business at local hotels.
Pons agreed, and said “the challenge is not promoting tourism, but not having new products to promote.”
A graph shows an increasing number of closed hotels in the Greater Williamsburg area, covering James City County, York County and the City of Williamsburg, between 2007 and 2017. (WYDaily)
Colonial Williamsburg has been working to increase visitation amid financial struggles, and city officials also are discussing ways to increase tourism.
“There’s an inability to fill hotels, and so hotels are struggling to keep the traditional business model,” Kirkland said.
Some hoteliers point the finger at tourism, but Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance President Karen Riordan said other hotel-related factors need to be considered when looking at tourism in the area.
And while some hotels have struggled under the weight of a changing tourism landscape, another type of lodging has not: timeshares.
A Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance report for January-September 2017 — the most recent data available — shows 72 timeshares were added to the market in that time span, bringing the total number of timeshares in the area to more than 6,700.
The chamber does not track the annual number of visitors to the Williamsburg area, but Riordan said she hopes to start tracking it in the future.
Not a pretty picture
While the area offers many high-end and family-friendly hotels, other establishments linger from a bygone era.
“A lot of the older models of hotels and motels, with [room] doors exposed to the outside, don’t do as well in today’s market,” Noel said.
In addition, Noel said, financing has been hard to come by for new hotels since the recession, leaving many older lodgings competing for tourists throughout the region.
The lodging options that remain — and that want to remain competitive — have seen frequent facelifts and renovations in order to stake a claim in the marketplace.
“Frankly, for all the good products, that’s an ongoing process,” he said. “You’ve got to stay fresh and new to stay competitive.”
Another issue is the regional statistics.
The 2007 hotel motel association report shows the annual occupancy percentage for Williamsburg-area hotels and motels went from 58.9 percent in 1987 to 47.7 percent in 2007.
A 2017 report shows occupancy rates hovered around 49 percent in December 2017.
A graph shows a declining occupancy rate for Williamsburg-area hotels and motels over the last three decades. (WYDaily)
Hotel visitation has gradually dropped since the late 1980s, Kirkland said, with a few peaks — including 2007, when Queen Elizabeth II visited the Historic Triangle to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.
With supply outstripping demand, national hotel chains are often hesitant to move into the market, Noel said.
“Any developer sees the trend of occupancy,” said Ratnam Patel, owner of two Marriott Inn & Suites in Williamsburg. “No developers are building here.”
The numbers show many hotels and motels already in town have struggled to remain in business.
A 2007 report from the hotel motel association shows there were 9,483 rooms in 94 total hotel and motel properties in Greater Williamsburg. Nineteen of the properties had closed by the time data were collected for the report.
A 2017 report lists 101 properties, 16 additional hotel and motel closures and 7,696 total rooms.
As some older motels struggle and others shutter their doors, other outdated buildings remain along major corridors such as Capitol Landing Road and Richmond Road.
“That’s a challenge for economic development offices, to find adaptive reuses for hotels if they can’t continue to function,” Noel said.
But challenges can present opportunities.
The Copper Fox Distillery now operates on the property where the Lord Paget Hotel sat on Capitol Landing Road. The city purchased the struggling hotel in November 2011 and resold it to distillery owner Rick Wasmund in 2014.
The city has also purchased the Super 8 hotel on Richmond Road in Midtown, and the White Lion Motel and the Country Hearth Inn & Suites, both on Capitol Landing Road. All three properties remain vacant.
“We want to see aging properties that have great retail and business potential on main business corridors see a renovation and a new life,” Williamsburg Economic Development Authority Chairman Adam Steely said in 2017.
The chamber’s Riordan said it’s difficult to measure the effect of redevelopment on local tax revenue, as redeveloped hotels pay other taxes — such as machinery and tools taxes — instead of what traditional hotels pay, like room sales and the Historic Triangle’s $2 lodging tax.
Between January and September 2017, Williamsburg-area hotels generated more than $7.8 million in room sales taxes, $15.3 million in meals taxes, $17.4 million in retail sales taxes and $2.3 million in $2 lodging taxes, according to chamber data.
Homelessness and hotels
Faced with the challenge of filling vacant rooms, some hotels and motels are “backfilling” space with those in need of affordable housing.
More than 120 students in Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools live in hotels and motels, said Betsy Overkamp-Smith, director of public relations and engagement for the school division. In York County, 36 students in the school division have been identified as residing at a hotel or motel in the 2017-18 school year, said Katherine Goff, the division’s public relations and communications officer.
“There’s a poverty and housing crisis,” said Williamsburg outreach and crisis counselor Roy Gerard, who helps connect those in need with resources during evictions, utility crises, medical issues and more.
Gerardi said he deals with 500 to 600 people a year in his role — and about 70 percent of people are in housing crises.
Of those people in a housing crisis, many are living or have lived in hotels, Gerardi said, although he does not track the number of people who do so.
Pons, owner of the former Quarterpath Inn, said he became aware of the need for affordable housing in Greater Williamsburg after seeing those in crisis take up residence in local hotels and motels.
“They’re backfilling by providing housing for these folks,” Pons said. “That’s where I first saw the demand.“
In two phases, Pons has renovated the Quarterpath Inn into affordable apartments in an attempt to address both the lack of tourist demand for motels with the need for affordable housing in the community.
He added that hotel rooms are not safe or comfortable places for someone to live for an extended period.
“Hotels are designed for a family to come in, watch TV, take a bath and go to sleep,” Pons said.
Peter Walentisch, Williamburg’s director of human services, concurred, saying children living in hotels and motels struggle to thrive.
Walentisch’s office deals with hundreds of individuals in need each year. The process of creating a safety net for those facing a housing crisis is a collaborative effort between faith-based groups, federal programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan, and local government programs that connect people to housing and jobs, he said.
Still, Walentisch said there will always be those who fall through the cracks because of an unexpected health crisis, unemployment, addiction, mental-health issues or disabilities. Many of them have no choice but to seek housing in rooms meant for overnight stays.
“If you or I had to live in these circumstances, I wonder how we’d do,” Walentisch said. “You have to put yourself in these people’s shoes to understand. And we often forget that.”
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