Destination 2018: Savannah

About 100 years ago, when electricity was still a fledgling technology, what would become Savannah Electric and Power decided to build a power plant on the south side of the Savannah River. The company hired a Boston-based firm named Stone & Webster, known for its management of these early utilities, to operate this one. It had a prime location: the intersection of River Street, which runs parallel to the water, and West Broad Street, which had been a hub for shipping and commerce since Savannah was founded in 1733. The plant would be a beautiful building, red brick with massive arched windows facing the river, because in those days nobody knew what a power plant was supposed to look like except that it was a symbol of local pride and progress. If it weren’t for the smokestacks, Savannah Electric’s new building could have been a Gilded Age concert hall.

Up and running in early 1913, the plant would be expanded and updated several times over the next five decades as the regional demand for electricity—air conditioning and nearby military bases had a lot to do with it—grew exponentially. Two additional buildings, more utilitarian than beautiful, would be tacked on to the original. But after Savannah Electric merged with utility behemoth Southern Company in 1988, the aging plant’s usefulness began to wane. In 2005, it was taken out of service. A handful of workers remained to remove asbestos and dismantle the massive turbines. By 2010, the once proud symbol of Savannah’s embrace of electric power was abandoned.

And there it sat—until 2012, when Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, put the now landmarked building up for sale and an idiosyncratic, determined hotelier named Richard Kessler bought it for $9 million. Kessler wanted to make what he called Plant Riverside his greatest project—one that would transform Savannah and help define his legacy. “This is a culmination of everything I’ve done,” he says. “When it gets done, it will be something like you won’t find on the East Coast of the United States.”

“When it gets done, it will be something like you won’t find on the east coast of the United States.”

A salesman and a builder, a dreamer and a persuader, Richard Kessler is the kind of person you sometimes think could only happen in America. He was born in 1946, the son of a plumber and a homemaker, in Savannah, but the family moved to nearby Effingham County, a sparsely populated rural area that’s part of the Savannah metropolitan area. Kessler went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering and operations research from Georgia Tech, and at age 23 he started working with real estate developer Cecil B. Day. The two would launch the Days Inn hotel chain, the first of which was located on Tybee Island, about 18 miles east of Savannah. At 29, Kessler became the president and CEO of Days Inn. When the chain was sold in 1984, he branched out on his own, launching the Kessler Collection of hotels and partnering with Marriott as a founding member of that company’s Autograph Collection. The Kessler Collection now includes nine hotels, mostly in the Southeast, two of which—the Bohemian and the Mansion on Forsyth Park—are in Savannah.

Child of a blue-collar family, Kessler is now a very wealthy man, and he has pursued interests that it’s unlikely he could have imagined as a child. He knows his wine with meticulous detail; he hunts big game in Africa; he collects art—mostly paintings—and fills the walls of his hotels with things he likes. He also collects fossils and rocks. A descendant of Lutheran immigrants, Kessler for years collected Reformation imprints and manuscripts, until he donated his collection to Emory University in the form of the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection. The collection contains more than 1,000 publications by Luther himself—the largest in the country, according to Emory.

Kessler has come far from Effingham County, but he keeps returning to Savannah. “Richard, he busted out,” says Savannah mayor Eddie DeLoach, who grew up not far from Kessler. “I guarantee you, he can go back right now and help pick peanuts. If you wanted a watermelon, he could go find you that watermelon in the field right now, thump and know which one’s ripe.”

In the hotel business, he has a history of making unorthodox choices. In 2001, for example, he opened the Grand Bohemian in downtown Orlando, Fla., a time in Orlando’s history when it wasn’t clear there was much reason for a downtown, much less a fancy hotel just across the street from city hall. “Everyone thought I was absolutely nuts,” Kessler recalls. “I thought during the week we could generate enough business, but I was really concerned about the weekends.” But Kessler’s confidence that you had to lead the market rather than follow paid off. “It turned out that once we opened, all of a sudden, the thing filled up.” As the hotel proved an anchor for a growing downtown, the experience taught Kessler a lesson that would serve him well going forward. “For most people, it was a risk they weren’t willing to take. But it gave us a benchmark: If you really believe in something, it will transform an area.”

Kessler’s next example of that was the 125-room Mansion on Forsyth Park, which, before Kessler acquired it and opened it as a hotel in 2005, had been the home of Fox & Weeks Funeral Directors (“Serving Savannah faithfully since 1882”). That wasn’t the only potential strike against it; at the time, the 30-acre Forsyth Park verged on the seedy. But the hotel worked, and the area started to pick up. “Why did he put this thing way out in the middle of town?” Mayor DeLoach says. “But he made that a destination, and it has been great.”

Then, in 2009, came the Bohemian, perched over River Street and the Savannah River; from its windows you can watch the enormous shipping tankers head upriver to the Port of Savannah. Its rooftop bar, Rocks on the Roof, became an instant and enduring hit—and that taught Kessler another lesson. “The Mansion does well, 85 percent occupancy,” Kessler says. “But the rate on the river, at the Bohemian, was always about 25 percent more than the rate on Forsyth Park. That alerted me to the power of the river.”

Both hotels were game changers for Savannah’s tourism market, which, with about 14 million visitors a year, is one of the most powerful drivers of the city’s economy. “With the Mansion, Richard introduced the idea of boutique hotels to a city that was built primarily on historic inns, charming bed and breakfasts and big-brand hotels,” says Joe Marinelli, the president of Visit Savannah, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. “And then he developed the Bohemian and put an energized rooftop bar on it. Not only did that become the place to go for locals, but word quickly got out with visitors. Having the most expensive hotel in town underneath the most popular rooftop bar in town set Savannah on a tear. That was not our product, our customer, our bar scene. And all of a sudden, it was. Developers and landowners started paying attention.”

One of them, of course, was Kessler himself, who, then in his 60s and having brought his children, daughter Laura and son Mark, into the company, was starting to think about the end of his career. He was drawn to that one-of-a-kind site at the intersection of River Street and the former West Broad Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—although not everyone saw its potential. For one thing, transforming a century-old power plant would be no simple matter. For another, River Street itself was a challenge. More than a mile of cobblestoned road with the river on one side and shops and restaurants on the other, River Street had once been an industrial area. But as the commerce faded, the street became, in the ’60s and ’70s, a little bit seamy, and after that, well, a little bit cheesy. “All of it was nothing,” says Mayor DeLoach. “This was back in ’68 to the early ’70s. It was where the marines from Parris Island used to go. They had some dives down there that they would go to and get in a scrap, and that’s when you read about what was happening on River Street.”

Adds city councilwoman Carol Bell, “There were a few stores, vacant properties, warehouses. You might walk along it, then leave.”

In the following decades, city officials worked to spruce the place up and turn it into a tourist attraction. They succeeded almost too well. Buoyed by its representation in the movie Forrest Gump and the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, fueled by a law that permits open containers of alcohol in public and with an influx of tourists lining up to get into Paula Deen’s hit restaurant the Lady and Sons, Savannah became the go-to place for drunken weekends, ghost tours, trolleys around the historic district and bachelorette parties. And River Street, with its ubiquitous bars, candy stores and tchotchke and T-shirt shops, was the rowdy, rambunctious, slightly tacky heart of it.

Kessler, however, had seen what a great hotel can do to transform a neighborhood. So when he heard that Georgia Power was ready to sell the power plant, he flew to Atlanta to meet with an executive there. “I said, ‘Look, I’m the one to buy this property,’” Kessler recalls. “He said, ‘You’ve made an offer but it’s not enough.’ I said, ‘Add a million to my offer.’ He said, ‘Won’t do it.’ I said, ‘2 million,’ then ‘3 million—and we’ll close in 45 days.’ He said, ‘Send me the contract.’”

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