Friday, May 14, 2021

Waterfront project construction may shift gears, due to pandemic

BELLEFONTE — The much-anticipated development of the Bellefonte Waterfront, with plans for a hotel, parking garage and condominium have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Developers told The Centre County Gazette they hope to get things moving forward again soon, but may have to shift gears a little.

“It is definitely still going to happen, it is just a matter of timing,” said Tom Songer III, commercial real estate representative for the project.

The group managing the project first announced its plans in 2018 and officially closed on the former Bush House property in December 2019.

Before the pandemic struck, plans were to start construction in the spring or summer of 2020, with hopes to open the hotel and parking garage in the summer of 2021, and the condominium in 2022. Then, things stalled as the whole world shut down last spring.

“We just kind of slowed down the design process, but my hope is that we can speed that up again soon here, with the lifting of COVID restrictions,” Songer told The Gazette.

With the current uncertainty in the hospitality industry, the group may decide to change plans and construct the condominiums before the hotel, he said.

“We were going to build the hotel building and parking garage first, and the condominium and office space building was going to be the third project. But depending on how quickly the hospitality industry comes back, if it is still slow to come out of there and we can’t get investors or lenders to help us get the hotel going — for a lot of other reasons, a lot of people just aren’t investing in hotels — so we have shifted our properties to the third building and the parking garage,” said Songer. “We are reconfiguring some of the floor plans to fit in more with what the market is demanding at this point.”

Songer’s father, developer Tom Songer II, who is co-managing partner for Bellefonte Waterfront Development, along with hotelier Mark Morath, described starting the overall project as the “renaissance of Bellefonte” during a presentation in February 2020, just before the pandemic rocked the hospitality industry.

Plans for a five-story boutique hotel at High and Dunlap streets include approximately 80 guest rooms, along with meeting and banquet rooms and a restaurant. A 300-space parking structure with 20,000 square feet of commercial and retail space is planned next to the hotel.

On the other side of the parking structure is a planned, five-story building with approximately 14,700 square feet of offices and/or retail space. Above the ground floor, there will be four floors of residential one- and two-bedroom condominium apartments.

Despite this shifting of gears, Songer III said he is hopeful the hospitality industry comes back strong as more of the country is vaccinated.

“As a commercial real estate guy, I’ll tell you, the hospitality industry, once these vaccines get rolled out, if (President) Biden can hit his end of May timeline to get most people vaccinated, I really think the hospitality industry will bounce back,” said Songer. He believes the hotel will serve a need in Bellefonte.

“People want to come to Bellefonte, they want to be here and spent time here, then they end up going to State College to stay in a hotel or stay overnight,” he said. “I am hopeful that we will see some renewed energy into lending and investors to build and develop those new hospitality projects. If that is the case, we are pretty much ready to go. I am not saying it is going to happen, but the hope would be to get started this summer on the hotel and the parking garage. The hope is by next summer, certainly by the end of summer if not before, to have people visiting the hotel in 2022.”

Either way, he said the community can expect something to happen soon on the property.

“We really want to get something moving here,” he said.

In 2019, the group was awarded a $2 million grant from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program for the parking garage, along with some other state funding.

“We really want to put that money to use and get this project going. Once it gets going, I think people will say, ‘Hey, this thing has got some legs” said Songer. “I think once things get a little more back to normal here, late spring or early summer, I think you’ll start to hear a lot more about what our plans are once we know what they are.”