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Artist ren­dering of plans for common spaces in the Keefer House released exclu­sively by CL Real Estate. Courtesy | Brant Cohen

A local devel­opment company is still working to breathe new life to the his­toric Keefer House hotel, despite the hurdles of COVID-19.

“We are making progress because of the resilience and encour­agement of the Hillsdale com­munity, and our partners at Southern Michigan Bank and Trust, the Michigan Eco­nomic Devel­opment Cor­po­ration, and the City of Hillsdale Tax Increment Finance Authority Board,” Pres­ident of CL Real Estate Nathan Watson said in a statement. “When we open, we’ll have the greatest cel­e­bration sharing this unique com­munity asset with all of Hillsdale.”

The Keefer House hotel project began when CL bought the property in 2018. Since then, the firm has worked to transform the building into a 34-room bou­tique hotel with a restaurant with three retail spaces and event space. The project hit several hiccups when COVID-19 shut­downs caused eco­nomic uncer­tainty, espe­cially in the hos­pi­tality industry. The uncer­tainty caused the project’s funding providers, MEDC and Southern Michigan Bank and Trust, to reassess the outlook of the project.

While the project nav­i­gates COVID-19 delays, there has been a lot going on behind the scenes that the public has not had the oppor­tunity to observe since the project began in 2018.

“Since pur­chasing the hotel, we did sig­nif­icant reme­di­ation to the hotel,” Cohen said. “We removed all the lead, asbestos, mold, and haz­ardous mate­rials from the building. We’ve spent over a million dollars out of pocket to invest in the archi­tec­tural and interior designs.”

With a lot of the groundwork out of the way and many of the details picked out, the obstacles have con­tinued to fall away as CL gets closer to breaking ground on the ren­o­vation.

“Every day, we are closer to the ground­breaking and re-opening the his­toric Keefer House Hotel,” Watson said.

While the pace of the progress has been admit­tedly slow, Cohen said that a lot of behind-the-scenes progress has been made. 

Yet the firm has also been sure to take extra pre­caution. 

“Part of it is you don’t want to race the process,” Cohen said. “You don’t want to mess up.” 

“It is a 134-year-old building. It is in need of serious improvement to function as a new building would. We want to ensure that whatever we do, we do it right, to restore a piece of history to the com­munity.”

Com­munity is a primary focus of the CL Real Estate team, Watson and CL Real Estate Asso­ciate Brant Cohen ’21 said. 

“We want this to be an investment not just for us, but for the town,” Cohen said.

Once com­plete, CL will hand over oper­ation of the hotel to another company that will bring nearly 50 jobs to the com­munity paying above the minimum wage.

“We find com­panies who have ded­i­cated expe­rience to make this project run and operate at a high level,” Cohen said.

This team involves a ded­i­cated mar­keting department whose aim is to bring vis­itors to the hotel and the Hillsdale area. With travel restric­tions due to the COVID-19 still in place across the country, Cohen  expects lower travel, which may turn out to be crucial, according to an internal market study on the hotel. 

“Our oper­ators are con­fident in what they’ve seen in their prop­erties scat­tered across Michigan,” Cohen said. “They’ve seen their prop­erties doing well in the des­ti­nation market more than any­thing else.”

Posi­tioning the hotel as a des­ti­nation, the CL team and the Keefer project will commit to the com­munity that sur­rounds Hillsdale just as much it does on their design and hos­pi­tality.

“The old his­toric com­mercial block is important for the com­munity,” Cohen said. “The plan here is that our property, through the restaurant and retail spaces, quality of service and quality of the rooms, this property will be unique enough to draw more people into the heart of Hillsdale to stay, to shop, and to dine.”

According to Cohen, COVID-19 has not altered the hotel’s overall plan to be a des­ti­nation and help build up the area’s resources in the long term. But Cohen did say that the project ran into delays this summer because of COVID-19.