August 2010

Wisconsin and Illinois Locals Win
Hotel Restoration Projects
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It’s a tale of two historic hotels, both in desperate need of skilled men and women to restore their majesty while keeping alive their own hopes for work and worth in trying times.

And it’s a story of two local unions pouring themselves into protracted public campaigns to successfully persuade residents and leaders that long-term investment in preserving their communities’ past can simultaneously plant seeds for the future.

Last year, when Madison, Wis., Local 159 Business Manager Mark Hoffman began an intensive lobbying campaign to win public investment in upgrading his city’s venerable 64-year-old Edgewater Hotel on Lake Mendota, he didn’t know that his efforts were being mirrored by another local leader to the south.

Peoria, Ill., Local 34 Business Manager Mike Everett, president of the West-Central Illinois Building Trades, was writing letters to the editor and urging politicians to save Hotel Pere Marquette. Built in 1927 during the Gilded Age, the hotel near the Illinois River waterfront had provided lodging for presidents and movie stars. Wrote Everett, "It’s a piece of our collective identity."

"The [Edgewater renovation] is just what the city and neighborhood, located near the state capitol and the University of Wisconsin, needed," says Hoffman, who testified at 2 a.m. during a contentious 13-hour city council hearing in May that ended with a vote to overturn a decision by the city’s Landmark Commission to let the hotel die.

Hoffman says the commission’s stance slapped history in the face. "This is the kind of hotel with signed pictures of celebrities who have stayed there all over the walls," he says.

"I told council members that by voting ‘no’ on this hotel, which would welcome powerful visitors who have the capacity to increase Madison’s long-term revenues [by offering grants to the university or erecting new buildings], they would only put themselves in the position of going back to taxpayers for a rate hike later on as the city’s budget continued to suffer," says Hoffman.

The Madison council approved $16 million for the $90 million project. Building trades’ activism also helped move forward a new central library project.

More than $10 million of electrical work will be committed to the Edgewater, requiring between 40 and 50 electricians during peak construction. The job will consist of a nine-story addition to an existing tower and a complete gutting of the interior. A 1972 renovation will be lowered by 20 feet, creating an attractive public access area reaching out above Lake Mendota.

"IBEW was a huge player in getting approval for the Edgewater renovation," says Tom Hansen, a consultant who developed TV spots for the South Central Wisconsin Building Trades Council promoting the project.

"It’s sometimes very difficult for people in the trades to look outside of themselves," says Hansen, who advised supporters to present the Edgewater project as being good for the community as a whole and about "way more than jobs." Everyone agreed that the building trades’ reputations were on the line.

The council built alliances with Downtown Madison, a group of retail store owners and tourism experts, as well as representatives of University Research Park, a technical complex established in 1984 encompassing 115 companies and 3,500 workers.

"The building trades made some big strategic alliances," says Hansen. "We’ve found a formula that works. There is a lot to learn from this campaign."

The winning formula was evident when the council’s majority and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz—who supported the renovation—made demands on the project’s developer regarding wages and benefits for construction workers. A project labor agreement is under consideration.

One week after the Madison’s success, the Peoria City Council voted to invest $37 million in the Pere Marquette’s restoration. Everett says the project includes extensive electrical work—installing backup generators and improving lighting and safety systems. The Illinois House passed a bill that would provide a historic tax credit that could send $8 million to Peoria if approved by the state Senate.

A Marriott Courtyard will be built adjacent to the historic hotel and both will be connected by a walkway to the city’s civic center. "We need a range of amenities and price to accommodate Fortune 500 executives, Rascal Flatts fans, and the guys in town for the farm show," says Everett.

"They don’t build hotels with the level of detail and resilience of the Pere Marquette any more," says Everett. In the talking stage for three years, the project will breathe new life into a downtown that has suffered under the weight of economic and demographic changes.

"Caterpillar has their world headquarters and is building a visitor’s center here," says 19-year Local 34 journeyman wireman Ed Weers, but the company has no local hotel suitable for corporate meetings. Out of work since February, Weers listened to Everett’s testimony at the City Council meeting and sent him a text message saying, "Yahoo!" when the hotel project passed.

"The economy is tough, but I hope this hotel starts drawing people in and moving the city forward," says Weers.

Everett sees even more work for the trades as downtown Peoria becomes more inviting for civic center visitors and participants in an expanding regional medical and research sector.

"As an aging construction electrician, I have a growing appreciation for buildings that have stood the test of time. I do love to see new construction rise, but I also love to see new life breathed into solid, existing buildings," Everett told the Journal Star.

Built in 1927, Hotel Pere Marquette has hosted presidents and movie stars. Peoria, Ill., Local 34 and the West-Central Illinois Building Trades successfully lobbied for millions of dollars in renovations.

Madison, Wis., Local 159 Business Manager Mark Hoffman was a leader of the intensive lobbying campaign to win public investment in upgrading the city's 64-year-old Edgewater Hotel on Lake Mendota.