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Construction starts on Oberlin hotel, convention center


OBERLIN — Ground was broken Thursday on a hotel and convention center that supporters hope will be an environmental model, economic hub and cultural and community magnet.

The 105,000-square-foot Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center will include a solar-powered hotel, a convention center accommodating up to 300 people and Oberlin College’s admissions office and development office.

“This gateway is going to be an important catalyst for creating a great future for this community and this region,” Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov told about 200 people at the groundbreaking ceremony. “It will spur sustainable economic development. It is crucial for the continued success of the city and the college.”

The facility, at the intersection of North Main and East College streets, will replace the Oberlin Inn, which opened in 1955. The 40-room inn will close in October 2015, said Ron Watts, Oberlin vice president for finance.

The center is primarily being paid for through Oberlin Illuminate, a seven-year fundraising campaign with primarily private donations. The campaign has raised about $223 million of its $250 million goal, said Ben Jones, Oberlin vice president for communications.

Watts said the project also is receiving about $9.2 million in federal tax credits for construction, which are designed to help create jobs. Construction is expected to cost about $32 million and begin in July. The project, which organizers have planned since 2009, is scheduled to be completed by January 2016.

While there is no project labor agreement with a local hiring requirement, Watts said many of the 300 construction jobs will be filled by local unionized workers. The hotel is expected to employ about 60 workers.

The center is part of the Oberlin Project, an environmentally sustainable community and economic development initiative. Oberlin Project founder David Orr, an Oberlin environmental studies and politics professor, said the original plan for the center involved renovating the inn, but it was too expensive. “This was going to be a money pit,” he said.

Orr said in 2011 he asked Lewis, head of Progressive Corp., a Cleveland-based insurance company, to donate $5 million to jump-start the project. Lewis made the donation just days before his death at age 80 in November. Orr said Lewis and his son, Adam Lewis, set a standard for “gracious philanthropy.”

“Giving is one thing,” Orr said. “Giving graciously from the heart is an entirely different thing.”

The money will help the center receive a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Commission. The platinum certification is the highest ranking a building can receive. Rating factors include energy performance, indoor environmental quality, use of sustainable buildings materials and water efficiency.

Orr said the building is a means to an end.

“The end here is the cause of justice and environment and sustainability,” he said. “We know that one college and one city can indeed change the world.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.

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