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Benjamin Spillman

Boulder Dam Hotel forced to close doors

13 July 2009

BOULDER CITY, Nevada -- Barring a miracle worthy of a Frank Capra script, the historic Boulder Dam Hotel won't open for guests, diners and history buffs Sunday.

The 20-room hotel and museum in downtown Boulder City is three months behind on its mortgage and last-minute appeals for money from the local government failed.

That leaves operators no choice but to shut down at midnight, which means the 76-year-old hotel, restaurant and museum will become a dark spot in the middle of Boulder City's historic district.

It also will leave 22 mostly part-time workers without jobs and two on-site caretakers looking for a new place to live.

"I got a 30-day notice, too," said innkeeper Roger Shoaff who, along with his wife, Roseanne, runs day-to-day operations on behalf of the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association.

Some independent small businesses and offices inside will remain open for now.

The nonprofit association that owns the property hopes to raise $250,000 by Sept. 10 to reopen the property.

But Shoaff was planning to lay off staff, close the restaurant and shutter the guest rooms by midnight.

The two-story, white-brick structure, with 10 stately wood columns and green trim, originally opened in 1933, two years before Hoover Dam was complete.

In addition to housing famous guests such as James Cagney, Bette Davis and Howard Hughes, the property houses much of Boulder City's past as well in the form of journals, personal photographs, tools and supplies related to the construction of Hoover Dam -- the Great Depression-era edifice that altered the flow of the Colorado River, brought electricity and reliable irrigation supplies to much of the desert Southwest and put Boulder City on the map.

Those treasures, as Shoaff calls the artifacts, and the fact the hotel serves as a tourist attraction and community gathering place for Boulder City cultural events, aren't enough to keep the property viable through the current recession.

The hotel-museum has about $8,000 in monthly mortgage obligations, Shoaff said, and the occupancy rate has fallen from about 68 percent to 57 percent since the national economy went into a tailspin last year.

The historical association sought to raise private money before turning, unsuccessfully, to Boulder City's redevelopment agency on Monday to ask for about $135,000.

The group is also seeking grants from the federal government, but now that it is 90 days past-due on the mortgage, foreclosure appears imminent.

"We can't compare ourselves to a casino that can give away a room for $9 and make money from other things," said Shoaff of the historic property's niche in the marketplace.

Shoaff and others say characterizing their request to the city as a ploy to prop up a business with government money is unfair.

They say the hotel is merely one asset of a beloved local institution that has seen other sources of funding, such as grants from Clark County, dry up in hard times.

"That is really what I find offensive, this isn't about making a multimillion-dollar mortgage payment or paying off big bondholders," said Michael Green, a history professor at College of Southern Nevada.

Green, who was married at the hotel, said it appears the fate of the property has become mired in local politics. He said the Boulder City community has the resources to step in and keep the property viable.

"There are enough residents there to put something forward that they should be ashamed of themselves if they don't," Green said.

So far, though, there hasn't been enough political momentum to rescue the hotel and keep the museum open.

The redevelopment agency deadlocked 2-2 Monday on a vote to provide a loan that would carry it through the summer.

"I think they really dropped the ball there," said redevelopment agency and City Council member Travis Chandler, who voted against the loan proposal. "Maybe it needs new management, a fresh perspective."

Chandler said he didn't consider the merits of the hotel and museum when he cast his vote because, as far as he was concerned, it is improper for a redevelopment agency to fund ongoing operations.

"This is simply a question of getting past the law," he said.

Cam Walker, another member of the redevelopment agency and the City Council, has a different take. He voted in favor of the loan and said politics is at play.

"It goes back to a decision of elected officials," Walker said. "Our motion was not to be throwing money around because someone asked."

Meanwhile, the hotel and museum is set to close and the cost to preserve it as-is keeps growing.

Shoaff said depending on how long it is closed, there could be new costs for business licenses and health code obligations.