BRADENTON -- The Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown Bradenton is officially open for business after a 10-month, $21 million renovation.
People began showing up right after the 3 p.m. opening Tuesday to get a look or to book a room at the former Manatee River Hotel, which opened in 1926. The hotel, 306 10th St. W, is now accepting reservations for any of its 119 rooms, plus its meeting rooms -- and the community certainly took the hotel up on its offer.
Mary Walsh was the first one to check in Tuesday, all thanks to her eager grandchildren Nick and Hunter Walsh, 11-year-old twins.
"They wanted to be the first ones and wanted to camp out and hope they had video games," Walsh said, relaxing in her room with the bouquet of flowers, box of candy and bottle of Don Perignon provided to her by the hotel for being the first customer.
Walsh, a retiree who has lived in Bradenton for eight years, is also being joined by grandchildren Joeleigh and Jozlyn Walsh for a slumber party to help celebrate the hotel.
"They can stay up as late as they want to as long as they wake up with a smile on their face," Walsh said.
Hampton Inn General Manager Spurgeon Nisbett called the first night a success, with about half of the rooms booked by 6 p.m. A traditional opening night at a hotel garners about six check-ins, he said.
"I am impressed by the response from the community," Nisbett said.
Katie and Doug Loose of Parrish were also among the first people who booked a room at the hotel, but opted to reserve a special night.
"We wanted to stay here New Year's Eve -- and thought that would be really good -- and try to get a balcony with a view of the river," Kathy Loose said.
The pet-friendly rooms were also a factor in booking a room for the holiday, Doug Loose said.
Joel and Christy Degitz of Fort Wayne, Ind., were taking a break on a bike ride and decided to witness the grand opening. The couple have vacationed in Bradenton for more than a decade and love the look of the Hampton Inn.
"We're going to ask them for a booking right before spring break and stay a couple days," Christy Degitz said. "We love the Riverwalk."
Mayor Wayne Poston was overjoyed looking around at the hotel.
"I can almost cry," Poston said. "I'm so excited about this. We had other hoteliers who wanted to tear the building down and build another building and we said no. This is part of Bradenton and part of our history and our architectural distinction, if you will."
Bob Bartz, president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, said the city is fortunate the 87-year-old hotel was saved.
"It's going to be wonderful for the downtown and provide much-needed room space for events downtown as well as sporting events," Bartz said.
Once dubbed the "Pink Palace" for its exterior walls, the hotel turned back the clock with its original buff color while adding modern amenities. Its original nickname was Queen of the West Coast, because it was at one time the largest hotel south of Tampa along the Gulf Coast, according to Herald archives. The original light fixtures along with the original marble floors and tile are all featured in the building, spruced up by modern furniture and touches throughout, including the only saltwater pool at any hotel in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
"The place speaks for itself," said Dave Gustafson, director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority. "The citizens of this community need to walk through this building and recognize its historical significance. Widewaters did an amazing job."
Widewaters Hotels, a Syracuse, N.Y. company, undertook the massive project with the help of incentives, and is the operator of the hotel included in the Hilton brands. The city is providing $1 million in up-front payments to Widewaters, $100,000 in street and sidewalk improvements, $1.5 million in property tax rebates over a 15-year period and a 70-year lease for parking in a city-owned lot on Fourth Avenue West, plus a deal for parking in the metered lot on Third Avenue.
The federal government is also granting up to $1.8 million in historic preservation tax credits if the renovation meets all National Parks Service requirements.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.