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City commission voices reservations as UPIKE plans to turn hotel into campus housing

Published: Jun. 28, 2021 at 7:48 PM EDT
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PIKEVILLE, Ky. (WYMT) - In 2019, the University of Pikeville approached the Pikeville City Commission with discussions about building a new dormitory on the school’s campus. The plans were nothing more than a first phase as the city told WYMT it was waiting for a formal response as the logistics were still being worked out.

Those plans never made their return to the commission. On Friday, however, the university returned with a new plan, informing the commission of plans to purchase the Hilton Garden Inn on Hambley Boulevard and turn the hotel into a new residential building for students.

“When the city and UPIKE work together, great things happen. But when the university goes out on its own and does things like this, without any knowledge and no conversation, no discussion at all, its hard for us to work with them,” said City Manager Philip Elswick.

Elswick said the commission was shocked by the announcement, fearful for the future of the city’s tourism if the 113 rooms are repurposed in an already limited land of lodging.

“We realize they need a dorm and we want them to have a dorm, we want the university to grow, but doing that, by purchasing a hotel and devastating our hospitality and tourism industry is not the way to do that,” Elswick said.

He said the hotel likely saw hard times during the pandemic. But he said the plans for revitalizing tourism post-pandemic would not only help the hotel, they rely on it.

In a statement from the city, the commission highlighted the importance of its partnership with UPIKE, saying most of the athletics at the university are supported by the city. Saying, “The City provides and maintains most of UPIKE’s sports complex. We gladly own, operate and maintain the public parking garage where most of UPIKE’s students and faculty park. We do this all because we understand the value of high-quality education options for our community and we know UPIKE growth is an important piece of Pikeville’s future.”

But, according to officials, the “go-it-alone attitude” of the recent move is not in the same spirit of growth and partnership they have grown to expect.

UPIKE representatives responded to the commission’s concerns Monday, saying the decision by the university is just another part of its plan for growth.

“We believe growing UPIKE by adding new programming will provide significant and sustained economic benefit to both the City and the region,” the statement read. “Our rationale is simple; we have a need for additional residence hall space which will allow UPIKE to remodel and use our other facilities for additional programs.”

The statement said the response from the city came as a surprise.

“We can fill the building with students every night. Our students, 50% of whom come from Eastern Kentucky, will drive economic development downtown that is significant,” said the statement. “Purchasing the hotel provides immediate relief for UPIKE’s housing needs and gives us the opportunity and space on campus to grow our undergraduate, graduate and medical programs.”

Elswick, however, said he would have preferred to help the university find another option that did not impact the city’s lodging. Which is why he wonders what happened to the original plans to build a dorm building on the campus.

“That would be the goal that the hotel remain there and remain in place and that UPIKE would find a way to address this in another way; in a way that’s good for them, good for the community, and good for the people who work there,” Elswick said.

He said he hopes there is a way the university will be willing to go back to the drawing board, as he worries the loss of the more than 100 rooms will be detrimental to the plans for revitalizing tourism post-pandemic.

“Losing that in the downtown area with close proximity to the arena is just a tremendous blow to our tourism industry,” he said. ”Not for a second did we stop planning and preparing for when that pandemic ended. And I think you’re seeing the fruits of that. I mean the arena is packed we’ve got festivals planned and downtown events going on. It’s really hard for us to accomplish those goals if we don’t have places to stay.”

The university’s statement said it will continue to work with the city for the betterment of the area, but it has yet to be discussed how the two can work together on the project at hand. The exact plans and timeframe for the hotel renovation have not been made concrete.

The full statement from the City of Pikeville can be read here:

See the full statement from UPIKE below:

“The University of Pikeville has been present in the City of Pikeville for nearly 132 years. We are proud of our home and our long-standing relationship with the City, the hospital, and the other businesses in town. We have worked diligently to partner with the City on a variety of projects, including economic development, athletics facilities, the Appalachian Wireless Arena and a whole host of other projects.

We are surprised the City Commission questions our decision to purchase one of the three downtown hotels and convert it into student housing. We believe growing UPIKE by adding new programming will provide significant and sustained economic benefit to both the City and the region.

Our rationale is simple; we have a need for additional residence hall space which will allow UPIKE to remodel and use our other facilities for additional programs. In addition, we can fill the building with students every night. Our students, 50% of whom come from Eastern Kentucky, will drive economic development downtown that is significant. To do that, we must provide housing accommodations that are up-to-date, competitive, beautiful, and meet the needs of students and parents with regard to safety and security.

Purchasing the hotel provides immediate relief for UPIKE’s housing needs and gives us the opportunity and space on campus to grow our undergraduate, graduate and medical programs.

We believe the future economic health of our region must depend on a diverse economy and we will continue to work positively, as we always have, with the City to move forward with that positive vision.”

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