By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The president of NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith's development company said the plan to build a hotel on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue is in the final phase of financing but he doesn't know when the development will be ready to break ground.
"What I can tell you is that we are close," Brian Morris of ESmith Legacy Inc. told members of the 125th Street Business Improvement District Tuesday during their annual meeting. "It's a very difficult time to finance projects."
The plan to build a Hyatt Place hotel on the vacant lot was first announced last year but has gone through major changes since then. In December, the company returned $20 million in federal tax exempt bonds. The development group needed to close on the project by Dec. 31.
Morris said the bonds did not fit the type of project the group is trying to put together.
A plan to build a YMCA in the structure is no longer in play but Morris said a grocery retailer "at a good price point" is an option, along with several other national retailers who are interested in space at the intersection.
"I'm not going to tell you something that I can't stand behind," said Morris who declined to name the retailers because he said negotiations were ongoing.
In December, Morris told The Wall Street Journal he fully expected the project to close and for construction to begin by the end of the first quarter of this year.
He refused to lay out a timeline Tuesday, saying that he is constantly asked about the project but the economic downturn has made financing difficult.
"It would be great to say third quarter of this year but i can't say it with certainty," Morris said,
Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District was more direct: "Can you say that you are definetly going to make it happen?" she asked, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
"There will be a project on the corner of 125th Street and Lenox and we will be involved in it," Morris answered.
Outgoing 125th Street Business Improvement District Chair Vince Morgan thanked Morris for "being honest."
The $81 million hotel, which is expected to provide more than 100 construction jobs and 80 permanent jobs, is considered a key project along Harlem's main thoroughfare.
Morris said the hotel could create opportunities for businesses ranging from launderers to caterers while proving that Harlem can be a successful market for the hospitality industry. Aloft opened the first hotel in Harlem in 40 years in December. But before that, a hotel announced at 125th Street and Park Avenue in 2005 never materialized.
"For 125th Street this is an anchor project," said Blondel Pinnock, president of Carver Bank's Community Development Corporation and the incoming and first female chair of the 125th Street Business Improvement District.
"Having an additional hotel will bring the most jobs and show the city that 125th street can sustain multiple hotels and national retailers. I'm hopeful they will get it done," she added.