By Aaron Nicodemus
Standard-Times Staff Writer
NEW BEDFORD — After years of false starts, a major, national hotel chain is apparently coming to downtown New Bedford.
Lafrance Hospitality Co. of Westport, the owner of four hotels, including the Hampton Inns in Westport and Fairhaven, is in the process of buying the Finicky Cat Food property at 16 Front St. on the city’s waterfront.
Company CEO Richard Lafrance confirmed Wednesday the company is actively negotiating with the owner of the property, the Nanfelt family, for the 2-acre parcel that is located directly across from the Bourne Counting House on Merrill’s Wharf. The purchase and sale has not been finalized, but a verbal agreement has been reached and the purchase and sale is being negotiated, he said.
“We’ve talked to some major hotel companies, and they’re very interested in granting us franchises for hotel property in the area,” Mr. Lafrance said. “We’ve been in the market for 20 years, we know the market pretty well, we live in the market, and we know the people who generate business in the market.”
Mr. Lafrance could not say which major hotel chain might grant the company a franchise for the site.
Once the purchase is complete, Lafrance Hospitality will propose building a hotel with 85 to 100 rooms and some conference space. He said the company will be looking to save the historic Baker-Robinson Oil Works Building located on the property as part of the new hotel. In 2002, the former whale-oil processing plant was named one of the 10 most endangered historic buildings in the state by the nonprofit group Historic Massachusetts.
“We’d like to incorporate that structure into our design,” he said.
In addition to the hotels it owns locally, Lafrance Hospitality owns Hampton Inns in Franklin and Plymouth and operates a Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn in Dover, N.H. The firm is building a Comfort Inn in Farmington, Maine, and has plans to build another national hotel in Dover. Lafrance Hospitality also operates three restaurants: White’s of Westport, Rachel’s Lakeside in Dartmouth and Bittersweet Farms Restaurant and Tavern in Westport.
The owner of the property at 16 Front St., the Nanfelt family, could not be reached for comment. A clerk at Finicky Pet Foods referred a reporter to Scott Nanfelt, who did not return a call for comment.
Mayor Scott W. Lang said the development of a hotel is “an extremely important project so people can stay near the downtown.” He said the conference space will be helpful to all the businesses in the area, from tourist spots such as the Whaling Museum and Zeiterion Theatre to the fish processing plants along the working waterfront.
“We were very bullish to get a hotel,” Mayor Lang said. “I think this hotel will be very popular very quickly.”
The hotel deal came together after a study by a nationally-recognized hotel marketing group concluded that there was room for an 85- to 120-room “boutique” hotel in the downtown area.
Matthew A. Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, said the city aggressively marketed the report and brought about a dozen hotel developers to various sites throughout the city.
“There were a lot of people who said we would never have another hotel in downtown New Bedford,” Mr. Morrissey said. “This was about persistence.”
There are still some stumbling blocks to the completion of the deal.
Finicky Pet Foods will have to be moved. Mr. Morrissey said Finicky has signed an agreement to buy the vacant MISB fish processing plant on the South Terminal waterfront and will move there.
Finicky is owned by to W.F. Schofield and Co., the largest supplier of fish and animal food supplies to the pet-food industry in the United States. The Nanfelt family rents the space to Finicky and still owns the building.
NStar owns a small office on what would become the site of the hotel, and negotiations to move that office and sell the property are in the early stages. Mr. Morrissey could not comment on the status of those negotiations.
And, finally, Lafrance Hospitality will have to negotiate with Mass Highway regarding access from a rebuilt Route 18, which will run directly adjacent to the property.
It has been many years since the downtown had a hotel.
In 1969, after years of hosting presidents and movie stars, the grand old New Bedford Hotel shut its doors. Three years later it reopened as 112 units of public housing.
The city has had lots of false starts with a downtown hotel since, including any number of negotiations that failed to produce a replacement.
In 2000, then-Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. announced the city was in negotiations with a major hotel developer considering building atop the Elm Street Garage.
In 2001, Scott Nanfelt announced that the Finicky Pet Foods plant would be closed, in the hope that a hotel developer would purchase it. At that time, the hotel would have complemented the New Bedford Oceanarium that was planned for the former NStar power station located a few blocks away.
In 2004, a boutique hotel developer from Philadelphia was reportedly close to purchasing the former New Bedford Institute for Savings building on Union Street, with plans to convert it into a small hotel. But, like proposals before it, that plan also fell apart.
Contact Aaron Nicodemus at email@example.com
Publication date: May 31, 2007
By Aaron Nicodemus