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New Hotel Might Not Boost South Bronx Businesses, Locals Worry

By Patrick Wall | September 3, 2013 9:19am
 As the new Opera House Hotel fills up, some worry its guests will spend all their money in Manhattan.
Opera House Hotel
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MELROSE — Travelers from as far away as Ohio, Minnesota, Puerto Rico and even Denmark have recently ventured to the South Bronx to stay at the Opera House Hotel, just two weeks after it opened in a century-old former theater by the Hub.

On Labor Day weekend, every one of the boutique hotel’s 60 rooms was booked, drawing guests with deals of $160 to $200 per night, which hotel management said was less than half what comparable rooms would go for in Manhattan.

But as the Opera House takes off, some wonder whether surrounding businesses and Bronx attractions will rise with it — or if, instead, its guests will bed in The Bronx, but shop and play in Manhattan.

“If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to keep people here,” said Olga Luz Tirado, executive director of the Bronx Tourism Council, “then shame on us.”

Groups including the Bronx Tourism Council and the economic-development agency SoBRO hope the hotel will boost the South Bronx directly, by sending tourists to local businesses, and also indirectly, by helping update outsiders’ perception of the area.

But no one claims that either feat will be easy, since few visitors from beyond New York are likely to know many Bronx destinations beyond a handful of big-name attractions, such as the Bronx Zoo and Yankee Stadium.

Business owners like Amir Chayon, co-owner of Ceetay, a new Port Morris-area sushi restaurant, said city and Bronx officials have not adequately advertised the borough’s off-the-beaten-path attractions.

“We have a nice borough,” he said, “but nobody promotes it.”

Tirado said her agency is acutely aware of that challenge and looking to address it. On Friday, for example, she said she dropped off some Bronx brochures at the Opera House, which until then had only Manhattan pamphlets to offer.

Still, some remain skeptical that tourists who stay at the hotel mainly for its affordable rates and proximity to Manhattan will spend either time or money in The Bronx.

“I appreciate them building this hotel here," said Vincent Valentino, president of the Hub Third Avenue Business Improvement District. "But I really don’t see how it’s going to affect my shoppers or merchants."

Like several others, he said that many people still harbor Bronx-is-burning era mental images of the borough as a dangerous, desolate place, even though Bronx crime is at a record low and development is humming along. (The number of South Bronx businesses grew by a quarter during the past decade, for instance, while the number of restaurants nearly doubled.)

Douglas Brookman, director of operations for the Empire Hotel Group, which runs the Opera House, described the hotel's home as an “up-and-coming neighborhood," across the street from the site of a planned school, supermarket and restaurant.

Hotelier Jay Domb — proprietor of seven Manhattan hotels, including The Belvedere and The Pearl in Times Square — bought the old Bronx Opera House in 2007. The 1913 Beaux-Arts building, which was designed by Apollo Theater architect George Keister, initially presented shows destined for or just off Broadway, and later hosted performances by Harry Houdini, George Burns and the Marx Brothers.

Domb spent $10 million to restore the East 149th Street building's facade, renovate the front section and replace the dilapidated auditorium in the back with a new three-story structure.

As Brookman looks to draw guests to a hotel that he described as just "a stone's throw from Manhattan," he acknowledged that some guests may need convincing that they can safely explore Bronx neighborhoods outside the major destinations.

“I think it’s getting people to feel comfortable,” he said. “I think the biggest concern for people is the stigma of safety.”

Several out-of-town guests at the hotel said as much on Friday.

Shawana Simms had traveled from Cincinnati for a game-show taping in Manhattan, but decided to stay at the Opera House because of a $200-for-two-nights deal.

Though she and her mother were eventually won over by the hotel, Simms said, when they first drove up to it, they were intimidated by the surroundings.

“When we first arrived, my mom was terrified,” said Simms, 29, adding, “The first word that came to my mind was ‘poverty.’”

Later that first evening, she ventured out to a Checkers fast-food restaurant around the corner — but only accompanied by a hotel guard.

Another visitor, Tony Silveri, had traveled with four friends from Connecticut for the Electric Zoo music festival on Randall’s Island.

He said he hoped they would have some time after the show to explore The Bronx — a sentiment that drew a funny look from his friend.

“Come on,” said Silveri, 25. “It’s not that bad.”