Gilding the Gilmer: Operators hope renovations will again make historic hotel an option for tourists

April 15, 2013 10:27:31 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


This past weekend was arguably one of the busiest Columbus has seen in a while. Between the conclusion of the Spring Pilgrimage and the Grillin' on the River barbecue competition, restaurants, shops and hotels enjoyed brisk business. 


Decades ago, Hotel Gilmer -- with its prime location on Main Street -- would have presided over it all. But that was before the four-story starlet became an aging beauty queen, no longer the belle of the ball. When the century-old building was razed, a squat, two-story motor court replaced it, and so began the slow slide into cultural obsolescence and moral decline.  


Gilmer Inn General Manager Laura Brady has heard the stories. She saw some of it with her own eyes. She took the job anyway, moving from Ohio to Columbus in February. And since then, she has started the painstaking process of re-gilding the Gilmer, hoping to bolster business and improve the structure's standing within the community.  


Friday afternoon, less than a quarter of the motel's 78 rooms were occupied, and those were filled with the usual -- factory workers and laborers looking for nothing more than a place to lay their heads between shifts. Not a single guest was a tourist in town for the weekend's offerings. A "good" weekend at the Gilmer sees around 15-18 stay-overs, who pay $40 for a single, $45 for a double or $190-$210 a week.  


But 20-year industry veteran Brady, who has a bachelor's degree in business with an emphasis on management, believes the economic decline will stop as word gets out about the changes she is making. Still, she was daunted at first, she admits.  


"It was pretty much an eyesore," Brady said. "A lot of drugs, a lot of prostitution. It's not like that anymore." 


Between 2008 and 2011, the Columbus Police Department responded to more than 293 criminal complaints at the Gilmer, but she said those are dwindling thanks to security cameras onsite and a zero-tolerance policy for troublemakers.  


"We're calling law enforcement," Brady said. "We just don't tolerate it. I put a 'no party' policy in effect." 


Other pests, namely cockroaches, have been eradicated by frequent, liberal dousings of insecticide, Brady said.  


The lobby has been outfitted with new furniture, a fish tank and new tile. The parking lot is being re-striped. Marigolds have been planted and the swimming pool is being drained, resealed and repainted.  


Then there are the rooms themselves. Next month, work will begin to update 20 units. They were in such deplorable condition that nearly everything -- sheet rock, carpet, furniture, bathroom fixtures, towels, bed linens -- will have to be replaced.  


The renovations will cost around $100,000, Brady said, but when she presented her plans to Chicago-based owners Sanjay and Nhana Modi, who bought the Gilmer in 2007, they seemed to understand.  


"I just approached them with the theory that you're going to have to spend money to make money," she said. "Things have been neglected that needed to be done." 


The biggest challenge Brady may face is changing public perception, and she's exploring all avenues, from social media to word of mouth. She has made a Facebook page for the motel and is planning a marketing campaign. She said she intends to work closely with the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau and Main Street Columbus, hanging their event posters in the lobby and, hopefully, garnering a few referrals.  


"It's a slow process because it was so bad, but we're coming back," Brady said. "It's not going to be done overnight." 


Local leaders say the changes can't come too soon.  


In September 2011, Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins announced that developer Mark Castleberry had taken an option on the property and the parcel adjacent to it, planning to replace the Gilmer with an upscale boutique hotel. But when Castleberry showed the property to its prospective tenant, they politely declined.  


"We are delighted changes are taking place," CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter said Friday afternoon, while coordinating the last tours of the Spring Pilgrimage. "We need a downtown hotel where it will be easy to walk to different venues. We'll certainly assist once they've made the changes." 


The Gilmer will likely never again be the posh fixture downtown that it once was -- a fact Brady readily acknowledges.  


"We just want to build the Gilmer back up," she said. "We want people to know the hotel is safe, clean and under new management. It's just a process. It's not going to be done overnight."

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.