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Renewal of City Hotel under way in Monroe

MONROE - The historic City Hotel is being gutted - but in a good way.

Demolition workers are removing the shoddy fixtures that led the city to condemn the building on West Front Street back in 2003.

Kenneth Wickenheiser of Monroe purchased the former hotel earlier this month and plans to bring the 1850-era landmark back to its former glory.

"To call it a hotel was a stretch - it was basically a place for bums to hang out," said Mr. Wickenheiser, referring to the building's more recent history. "So really there is nothing to salvage inside the building in terms of finishing. It has been ruined over time and is gone. The only thing to salvage is the walls of the building and its roof."

He said he will replace all the building's mechanical fixtures - its heating, cooling, lighting, and plumbing systems - while resurrecting some of its historical features, like its former arch-top windows, wood floors, and exposed brick.

He said he bought the building for about $200,000 from Donald Brown, who, in July, was serving time in Monroe County jail for a probation violation.

The building's rehabilitation will cost about $500,000, and construction will begin next spring with a hopeful opening in fall, 2007, according to Mr. Wickenheiser.

He said it will be a mixed-use development, with the first floor used as commercial space and the second and third floors becoming residential apartments. He said the average loft-style apartment rents for between $800 and $900 a month in downtown Monroe.

"We are all really upbeat and positive about the change of ownership of this property and feel it is now in the hands of a capable developer," said George Brown, city manager. "We will work closely with the owner to make sure that property is adequately - hopefully well beyond adequately - rehabbed and done in a reasonably timely manner."

Joe Lehmann, director of the city building and zoning department, said the hotel was deemed a "dangerous building" and shut down after a complaint in 2003.

"We had a complaint from a tenant who was living there. They said there was no running water or restroom facilities," Mr. Lehmann said. "So we went in there, and while there, we saw a lot of other safety issues and wrote up a bunch of citations."

The market for historic buildings in city centers seems to be holding despite downturns in the housing market.

"The market right now for residential living in the downtown urban area is going crazy," said Mr. Wickenheiser. "The suburbs are saturated, but what is going strong is people wanting to move into older, historical buildings in an urban setting."

Mr. Lehmann said if redevelopment of historic downtown buildings is any benchmark, it seems such parcels are indeed in a bull market.

"In the last five years, there have been quite a few of these historic buildings that have been rehabbed," said Mr. Lehmann. "It seems like every year we have more and more of these rehabilitations going on downtown."

Mr. Wickenheiser has rehabilitated about 12 historic buildings in the downtown area over the past six years. He is currently in the construction phase of the Jones for Men building on 10 East Front Street.

"He has purchased a couple buildings in downtown Monroe before and has done an [amazing] job of fixing them up before and we expect the same with this current project," said Mayor C.D. "Al" Cappuccilli.

Mr. Cappuccilli said cleaning and dressing these buildings up makes the downtown more attractive and leads to economic revitalization, because "once something like that happens, you begin to have a domino effect with more businesses deciding to come to the downtown area."

Contact Benjamin Alexander-Bloch

at babloch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.

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