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Sonoma County airport area could be slated for 2 new hotels

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Developers are proposing to build a pair of large hotels near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, more than tripling the number of hotel rooms to serve travelers at the growing transportation hub.

The two projects, each more than 100 rooms, could help the Santa Rosa airport draw more regional travelers who currently head to Bay Area hubs in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and even east to Sacramento to catch their flights, according to local airport and economic development officials.

The developments, which would open next year, are working their way through the county’s permit review process. The first, a six-story, 166-room luxury Hyatt Place, would offer conference rooms, a roof deck and restaurant about 300 yards away from the airport. The second, a four-story, 101-room Tru by Hilton, would be located near the Highway 101 offramp.

They would join the existing hotel near the airport, a 90-room Hilton Garden Inn next to the highway that also provides meeting spaces for guests.

“Adding more beds in that scenario is a good thing. It’s two blocks from the terminal,” said Jon Stout, Sonoma County airport manager. “That could be a bigger draw in terms of driving more passengers, and more convenience for the businesses around the airport to meet coworkers or other vendors. It could also mean getting more passengers coming from Humboldt, Mendocino or Fort Bragg, who are maybe going and staying in San Francisco.”

Airport travel rose to new highs in 2019 for the ninth consecutive year. Final passenger numbers for 2019 won’t be available until later this month, but will approach 490,000, or about 10% more than in 2018, according to airport officials. And more passengers could prompt Schulz’s four commercial air carriers that go in and out each day to establish new or expanded routes to Santa Rosa.

To meet the growing demand, the airport is in the midst of a $3.9 million upgrade that will move the security checkpoint into the tented area used for departure gates and replace its portable toilets with permanent bathrooms. That project will make way for a $25-plus million expansion that will relocate the baggage claim area and add 30,000 square feet to the terminal, which is set for completion in 2022.

The two hotel developers say they’re hoping to take advantage of the rising popularity of the airport for both commercial travelers and the private jet business into Sonoma County.

“It really just comes down to supply and demand, and there’s definitely not much supply by the airport, and we’re trying to capture a lot of that business, but the corporate (travel) business generally as well,” said Preet Sekhon, director of operations for Optimal Hospitality, Inc., which is pursuing the more budget-focused Tru hotel. “We love the location, with the SMART train a block down the street and the airport exploding, so we think it’s a slam dunk.”

Similar to the AC Hotel by Marriott in the final stages of construction near Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, the Tru hotel would be built off-site in modular units. Rooms would be shipped in fully built, with the exception of windows, and stacked atop each other by a large crane. The process costs less money and is also much faster to build, Sekhon said.

Optimal Hospitality has sat on the nearly 2-acre parcel on the south side of Airport Boulevard at Aviation Boulevard since buying it for approximately $1.45 million in July 2016, according to the Sonoma County Assessor’s Office.

The project received its use permit and now awaits its building permit, with a target of summer 2021 for completion if the application process is finalized by this spring, Sekhon said.

Meanwhile, St. Helena-based Landmark Hotels, Inc. submitted its application in March for the higher-end Hyatt Place, with designs of delivering the hotel by winter 2021.

The company paid $2.75 million in 2018 for the 4-acre property on Airport Boulevard, according to the Assessor’s Office, and has moved quickly to have its plans reviewed by county staff.

“Sonoma County and the Wine Country still has so much potential,” said Glynis Esmail, the hotel group’s vice president of marketing and distribution.

“I think any hotel that’s near an airport benefits from traffic from that airport, but that whole airport area has a lot of growth opportunity for corporate business as well as leisure. It’s a great entryway to Sonoma if you’re coming in from the air.”

If approved, the two hotels would join the recent boom in lodging construction. There are about 6,900 hotel rooms across the county, according to Sonoma County Tourism, with about 1,500 more rooms either pitched or nearing completion — a 22% increase by 2022 if all 14 projects are built.

Among them, the expected completion later this year of the 142-room AC Hotel near Railroad Square and a 100-room La Quinta by Wyndham, combined with the another 39 rooms in the first phase of Hotel E in Old Courthouse Square finished last year, will push Santa Rosa past the 2,000 rooms it had before the Tubbs fire hit in October 2017. The wildfire destroyed a total of 412 rooms between the Fountaingrove Inn, Hilton Sonoma Wine Country and America’s Best Value Inn and Suites.

The slew of new hotels, including the two proposed near the airport, show that developers believe unmet demand remains for guest rooms in what will become a more competitive market as additional projects are delivered across the county.

And with more and more annual events unrelated to wine, including Russian River Brewing’s release of Pliny the Younger in February, Levi’s GranFondo bicycle ride in October and Santa Rosa’s two Ironman races, there’s greater opportunity to draw hotel visitors throughout the year, said Lauren Cartwright, spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

“I think it does show strength of the industry in the region, and does show the success of tourism despite all the challenges in recent years,” Cartwright said, referencing repeat fires and floods.

“The diversity of different events created in the region helps satisfy the needs of the hotels being developed.”

Still, some residents have complained to Supervisor James Gore that the county is being overrun by hotels, and they don’t want to see any more visitor-focused development.

However, Gore, whose district includes the airport, argues that building in high-impact areas already zoned for such projects is the exact location to approve them, allowing economic diversity and progress while helping preserve Sonoma County’s agricultural heritage elsewhere.

“That’s really the epitome of good land use, when it’s the highest and best use,” Gore said. “People who build hotels are not just building hotels to lose money as loss-leaders,” Gore said.

“In this case, we need think forward, not only in 10 years, but in five years, so we have a great mixture of high-level mixed use, industrial, commercial, some workforce housing and some great hotels.”

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