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Hilton on the horizon

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The seeds for North Dakota's first Hilton hotel were sown at an aviation gathering in the summer of 2001. It was at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture -- an event that attracts some 750,000 aviation enthusia...

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The seeds for North Dakota's first Hilton hotel were sown at an aviation gathering in the summer of 2001.

It was at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture -- an event that attracts some 750,000 aviation enthusiasts each summer to Oshkosh, Wis. -- that the movers and shakers behind the 100-room hotel under construction on the University of North Dakota came together.

"Thirteen months ago, we didn't have a project. Today, we're putting in the windows. That's how fast this has happened," said Tom Kenville Jr.

Kenville, vice president of business development for UND's Aerospace Foundation, was in Oshkosh last summer with UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences dean Bruce Smith. They were there to showcase UND's aviation program and several of its aircraft.

Also attending the fly-in was James Ray, an entrepreneur and major UND School of Aerospace Sciences benefactor. Ray is one of the investors in Grand Forks-based Cirrus Corp.

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"He likes to create jobs for young people and for technology," Kenville said of Ray.

Ray has created two $1 million endowments within the UND Foundation: one named for the late Odegard, who guided the creation of the School of Aerospace Sciences, and one for retired associate dean Don Smith.

"James Ray has always taken a great interest in what's happening at UND," said Dave Meidema, executive vice president and CEO of the UND Foundation. "He's a get-things-done kind of guy. He brings people on board and away they go."

Ray and Kenville had been talking for several years about the need for a quality hotel near campus. Their hotel pursuit had been simultaneous to a yet unrealized desire of Grand Forks city officials for a hotel adjacent to the Alerus Center.

"Mr. Ray wanted us to build a hotel for UND. He always said that when he was in town, there was no place to stay," Kenville said.

Ray, a pilot who flew his jet to the event, happened to have breakfast there one day with Barrett Hilton, CEO of Hilton Corp.

Ray told Hilton about the aerospace program at UND and said he'd like to get a Hilton built in Grand Forks.

Barrett introduced Ray to Tom Arnot, a De Forest, Wis., attorney and developer who had just opened the Oshkosh Hilton Garden Inn.

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Arnot a week later was in Grand Forks looking for land. On April 15 of this year, University Hilton, a limited liability company backed by Arnot's Beechwood Development and partially financed by Ray, broke ground on the $10 million Hilton Garden Inn Grand Forks.

A number of Grand Forks-area contractors also have an ownership stake in the hotel. "We're getting a tremendous support from contractors on the equity side," Arnot said.

The 70,000-square-foot hotel was designed by architects with Icon Architectural Group of Grand Forks.

Community Contractors of Grand Forks is the general contractor on the project.

"We probably have 90 men on the job today, working for about 15 subcontractors," Cory Elde, job superintendent on the project for Community Contractors, said Tuesday.

Elde said the job is about 60 percent complete. Crews Tuesday were finishing floors and hanging drywall on the hotel's second and third floors.

He said they're on pace for completion by December.

"We want to have it all Sheetrocked and taped by Sept. 1st," Elde said.

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"I'm just starting to take some bookings this week," said Douglas DeMars, a Fargo High School and Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate hired as general manager for the Hilton Garden Inn Grand Forks.

DeMars, who studied business management at UND before going to MSUM to earn a motel and restaurant management degree, has 15 years of experience in the hospitality industry, having managed and consulted on properties in Minneapolis, Seattle and Arizona.

He said he welcomed the opportunity to return to North Dakota. "I had kept my ear to the ground," he said. When the Hilton looked like a go, DeMars got a call from Kenville.

DeMars said he expects the university will generate a good share of the hotel's clientele. The hotel will be connected by a skywalk to UND's Rural Technology Center, which, in turn, is already connected to the aerospace school.

The building will be the fifth in UND's Technology Park, which was established in 1988.

"Hopefully, this hotel will be the heartbeat of our tech park," said Kenville.

Room prices are expected to average $80, though the hotel will be opening with teaser rates in the $60 to $70 range.

The Hilton will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner in its Great American Grill.

The hotel will be able to handle groups as large as 200 for banquets, DeMars said.

With the addition of the Hilton Garden Inn, the market will have 1,845 hotel and motel rooms, according to Julie Rygg, general manager of the Greater Grand Forks Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Rygg said there has been a demand for more rooms since the opening of the Alerus Center. The Alerus is capable of hosting large, regional conferences.

The most recent addition to the market is the 84-room Holiday Inn Express, opened along Interstate 29 in June.

"We have a good mix of hotel rooms right now," Rygg said.

She said convention planners still would like to see a hotel on the Alerus grounds, if only for convenience. But she said the Hilton Garden Inn, a half-mile north of the Alerus, makes it attractive for planners of Alerus events.

"It will be wonderful for us," she said. "We're excited for the Grand Forks community as well as for the hotel's customers."

Readers can reach Forum Business Editor

Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560

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