Major rehabilitation planned for Marconi
For years, the Marconi Conference Center has creaked, cut limited funding for California state parks, and ran out of money to restore the historic park’s crumbling buildings. When the pandemic ended conferences last year, the nonprofit that runs the site on the east shore of Tomales Bay struggled to keep the lights on.
Today, a new for-profit company plans to reopen the historic hotel, closed to guests for more than 50 years.
This fall, the state plans to sign a 55-year operating agreement with new company Marconi Hospitality, a group of investors that will serve as a sub-operator for the non-profit Marconi Conference Center Operating Corporation.
“It’s been an infuriating process, but now we’re at the finish line,” said Hal Russek, executive director of the operating company. “The leisure activity is going to be a necessary evil to attract a for-profit business, because we impose an obligation on them to restore historical monuments.
The state parks themselves were a major client of the conference center before the pandemic, hosting training for staff there. But the agency began to prioritize the restoration and reopening of the hotel to visitors, both to create a new source of revenue and to give the state park a better face.
“The Marconi Hotel is the first thing you see when you drive, and it’s been empty for years,” said Maria Mowery, Bay Area District Superintendent for State Parks. “For all of the sub-operators we have worked with, we really wanted the hotel to be rehabilitated, not just to be left empty.”
The association is not a concessionaire of the Marconi State Historic Park, but rather an operator, which means that it is also responsible for restoring the historic buildings in the park. The property is home to a century-old hotel and cottages built by Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, to house the employees of his trans-Pacific reception station. Only two of the property’s five historic buildings have been restored: Buck Hall was renovated in 1992 and a smaller booth was converted into a conference room in 2006.
Representatives from the for-profit Marconi Hospitality met with community members last month to discuss issues such as public access to the park and water use. The East Shore Planning Group board attended a Zoom meeting with Rodney Fong, a prominent San Francisco real estate investor and town planning commissioner who is a partner in the new project.
Mr. Fong is President and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and has owned the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf for almost 30 years.
“Marconi is a valuable site in West Marin,” Mr. Fong told Light. “We recognize his contributions historically, but also today. We want to make it operational, but do it in a way that celebrates the region. ”
Mr Fong said it was too early to discuss the details of the next sub-exploitation deal, but he said his company still appreciates the non-profit conferences that Marconi has relied on for years and will continue to do. to bring them to the center during the week, as well as with more tourists on weekends.
The American Marconi Company, which operated the transoceanic radio station, sold the property to the Radio Corporation of America in 1920, and the station was decommissioned 20 years later. The Synanon Foundation, a drug addiction group engaged in criminal activity, has counted the site among its West Marin properties for years.
In 1980, the San Francisco Foundation purchased the property from Synanon. The foundation owned the land for about a decade before donating it to state parks on condition that it be used as a conference center and remain open to the public. For more than 25 years, the state has subsidized the not-for-profit operator with annual payments of $ 172,000.
The 2008 economic crisis wreaked havoc on state park finances and the agency began seeking private partnerships to attract visitors and operate facilities. In 2016, the state suspended payments to the nonprofit MCCOC, which increased pressure on the conference center to become financially solvent. “The state has no money. The non-profit organization has no money, ”said Russek.
The association has started looking for a private for-profit sub-operator willing to take a risk on the 52-acre property. The company should be prepared to thoroughly restore the buildings, which are protected in the National Register of Historic Places. “There was not a long line of suitors,” said Russek.
Artistree-Marconi has been selected as a sub-operator. The company planned to build two dozen “green accommodation” cabins on the property, but it was run by entrepreneur Amy Beilharz, who also became executive director of MCCOC. Two years after taking the post, in 2018, Ms Beilharz resigned from her post. the non-profit organization on conflict of interest issues. Artistree signed a letter of commitment but never formalized an operating agreement with the association, and negotiations collapsed during the pandemic.
“There would be nothing we could do to reconcile,” Ms. Mowery said. “Negotiations failed with the change in the economy and the lack of demand for hotel rooms.”
The pandemic has made the financial need for the conference center even more urgent. “As the pandemic spread, they were no longer able to keep the lights on,” Ms. Mowery said.
The association therefore asked the group of investors led by Mr. Fong to renovate the hotel. In a draft operating agreement with the association, Marconi Hospitality detailed its plans to restore the property over the next five years. The agreement will last more than half a century, the time for the company to make a return on its investment. The state estimates that the company will earn an average of $ 825,950 per year once the facilities reopen.
Marconi Hospitality will spend around $ 6 million on preliminary renovations before moving on to the major construction phase, which will cost up to $ 27 million. This phase includes the construction of 52 new cabins, the conversion of the operating building into a wellness center, the renovation of the Marconi hotel and the addition of housing for on-site employees. The company showcased brand inspiration for renovations which it says draw on the architectural tradition of Third Bay and Sea Ranch, the most notable example of the style.
The five-year estimate assumes no regulatory or licensing timeframe, but regulatory barriers are numerous. The major construction phase of the project will require approval from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Marin County planners and the California Coastal Commission, and review under the California Environmental Quality Act. The company will continue to consult with the East Shore Planning Group; last month, the group sent a letter urging developers to maintain relationships with nonprofits for conferences, engage more dialogue on water and drought issues, and use recycled water for landscaping.
Investors in Marconi Hospitality are affiliated with BNA Associates, a large Nashville, Tennessee-based real estate development company that has invested in numerous hotel projects across the country, including a $ 15 million rehabilitation of the Station House Inn , a motel in South Lake Tahoe. Mr. Fong’s local partners are Adam Mendelson and Jon Larner, who have invested in and managed various event spaces and restaurants in San Francisco.
Ms Mowery said State Parks is happy with the company’s credentials as experienced developers. “They did adaptive reuse,” she said. “They are used to working with government agencies. “
The state parks have approved the operating agreement, which is currently under review by the state’s joint legislative budget committee. Once approved, it will go to Mr. Russek and Mr. Fong for signature, and the process is expected to be completed this month.