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From the vaults: Southlake developers to resurrect historic hotel, town

This story was published in August 2010: 

A Southlake development group planning to perform a massive renovation to The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells is confident the project will bring life back to the dilapidated building and to the sleepy town of 17,000.

“This project is not only important for Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto, but for all of Texas,” said Laird Fairchild, principal at Hunter Chase Private Equity. “… I’ve been working on this for three and a half years now and every day it feels like we’re getting closer and closer, but we’re making a lot more progress these days.”

By far the largest building in Mineral Wells’ skyline, the 14-story Baker hotel was one of the largest health spas in the country when it opened in 1929 during the height of the mineral water craze. The hotel has stood vacant for nearly four decades, but Southlake-based Hunter Chase Private Equity has put together a team to resurrect The Baker as a 155-room, four-star hotel, spa and resort.

The development group charged with the project, Baker Hotel Development, includes Hunter Chase Private Equity, Southlake-based Thiel and Thiel Inc. architect and interior design firm, Austin-based HHCC as general contractor and Austin-based La Corsha Hospitality.

Fairchild said plans for the renovated hotel include paring down its current 450 rooms – most of which are small compared to modern hotel rooms – and combining them to end up with 155 rooms. The spa would be brought back to life in 11,000 square feet on the hotel’s second floor and improvements would be made to the hotel’s exterior and grounds. No changes would be made to the exterior, though, because of historical restrictions, Fairchild said.

“Besides that, we want to preserve the look of the hotel,” he said. “It has a great history.”

HHCC Managing Partner Mark Rawlings said he hopes to piecemeal portions of the project to allow local tradesmen such as plumbers and electricians a chance to take on part of the massive job.

“Our thought process is that The Baker is about Mineral Wells and the people there and we don’t want to be one of those groups that comes in, takes our money and goes back to where we came from,” he said. “We want to really try to keep some of that in Mineral Wells so we are going to try to break up some of the projects into bite-size pieces, I guess you could say. For instance, take three local plumbing contractors and give them each parts of it. There’s plenty to go around.”

Rawlings said his group will work ahead to get permits for the project and subcontract with as many local businesses (including Mineral Wells and Weatherford and possibly some in Fort Worth) as possible.

“We’re just trying to give opportunity,” he said. “That’s what I can promise is there is going to be a lot of opportunity once we get going.”

In its heyday, The Baker included mineral baths, a golf course and three dance floors, including one in a rooftop nightclub with doors that would swing open on summer nights. Hollywood stars like Jean Harlow, Judy Garland and Clark Gable strolled the halls of its ballrooms, but in the 1940s, the federal Food and Drug Administration ordered Mineral Wells to stop making medical claims about its mineral waters and traffic at the property dropped off.

Owners of The Baker filed for bankruptcy in 1932, but the hotel stayed open until 1963. It remained closed until 1965, when it re-opened, subsequently closing again in 1972.

Time after time, rumors have floated that a buyer was on the brink of picking up the hotel and transforming it into either a mixed-use development, a casino or condominiums – but nothing solid materialized until now.

The design overhaul will take the hotel – which originally featured a gym on the 10th floor and a spa and ballroom on the first floor – and allow developers to target more business and meeting groups as well as event groups. Fairchild said the hotel will feature several floors that could be breakout rooms and The Baker suite and the presidents’ suite will remain in their current locations.

Rawlings said the swimming pool at the hotel is about 5,000 square feet and while plans are nowhere near finalized, there might be some opportunity for public access to the pool in the future.

“It hasn’t been fully decided yet, and we may find some happy melding of it,” Rawlings said of public access to the pool. “We’re hoping that we’re going to be so full of guests that there won’t be room, but certainly we would want to have some time to have some open house stuff and fun stuff. There might be some times when we say, ‘Hey, it’s local day. Come on out.’”

Rawlings said the area of the hotel that will be affected the most is the spa area, which cannot be simply restored.

“I don’t think that the Eastern European slasher movie look it has going on right now is really going to work,” he said. “We’re going to have to change that.”

Kurt Thiel, namesake of Thiel and Thiel, said the changes to the spa will still be in line with its rich history.

“The Texas Historical Commission really, really wanted us to preserve some of the existing space and you have to remember that in those days, spas were truly health treatment rooms and that concerned us because it has a sterile look,” Thiel said. “Spas now are a recreational enterprise, not health associated with medical treatment, so we knew we had some work to do, but by using the white subway tiles and implementing many elements, we were able to come up with a luxurious look that preserved its history, but gave it a better look and feel. And we’ll have a small cube in the space so you can go see what a portion of that spa looked like prior to the renovation … We think this is a project for a lifetime. It’s very exciting.”

The exterior of the massive building will be cleaned, but nothing will be changed, Fairchild said, except for the cactus that has grown on the roof of the entrance to the building for many years.

“We’ll have to take the cactus off the roof, but we’ll transplant that somewhere,” he said. “Something that grew for that many years on a roof in a gutter deserves a nice place.”

Renovation plans call for the city of Mineral Wells to purchase the hotel for $2.2 million from its current owner, a partnership managed by Greg Horne of Phoenix. Fairchild said the renovation will come with a price tag of $54 million. Financing is slated to come from several areas including $9.7 million in new markets tax credits, a federal tax credit allocated by the U.S. Treasury to entities that make investments in low to moderate income census tracts – a tax credit Fairchild said is underutilized in Texas. Another $7.6 million is expected to come from historic tax credits, $7.9 million will come from a Tax Increment Finance District created in Mineral Wells, and $500,000 is slated to come from an EPA grant. Fairchild said the largest portion of financing will be $20 million in long-term debt secured through the Texas Department of Rural Affairs to qualify for a federal Housing and Urban Development loan – a feat Fairchild’s group hopes to accomplish after several talks with state and regional organizations. The balance of the funding is $8.7 million, which will come in equity from the development group.

Kevin Pruitt of Austin, a former resident of Mineral Wells, is making a documentary about the history of The Baker and its impact on Mineral Wells, and Fairchild said his group has been using the eight-minute documentary trailer as marketing material in funding meetings.

Pruitt is handling marketing and Web design for The Baker project including a website, thebakerhotel.com, that is set to launch mid-September. Fairchild said the website will include the hotels’ renderings, floor plans and more in an effort to be transparent.

“This is a quasi public/private venture and we feel like everybody needs to be a part of of having it restored so we’re approaching it with an open-book policy,” Fairchild said.

Fairchild said he hopes to begin construction on the project in early 2011.

“I would love to be in a position to begin construction early next year, but this is a process that has a life of its own,” he said. “… It’s something that a lot of people want to see done, so we feel confident in it.”

Fairchild said the Mineral Wells Chamber of Commerce fields more than 100 calls annually from people asking to hold their wedding at the hotel in its current condition and the chamber answers more than 2,000 calls annually from people generally interested in the hotel.

“Of course we’re hoping that if that many people want to get married there every year in its current condition, then even more will want to get married there after it’s renovated,” Fairchild said.

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