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DuPont Country Club hits sales block: DuPont sells its hotel

New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner, a Brandywine Hundred resident, said DuPont must stand by its pledge to sell only to someone who will not alter the character of the facility.

“We are all encouraged by the DuPont Company’s affirmation to ensure the future ownership will continue to operate the property as a country club and make an investment in the property,” Weiner said.

Era ends as DuPont sells its hotel

Jeff Mordock , The News Journal 1/31/17

Local residents had expected Buccini/Pollin to acquire the Hotel du Pont for more than two years, but the announcement still sent shockwaves through Delaware.

"This is an 'oh my God' story," said Stanley Turkel, a hotel historian. "It is that important."

DuPont announced Tuesday it sold the hotel business to Buccini/Pollin, a Wilmington-based developer. Separately, DuPont will explore a sale of the country club.

Under the agreement, Buccini/Pollin will assume control of the 217-room Hotel du Pont's operations, which will be run by its Washington, D.C.-based hotel management affiliate, PM Hotel Group. A price was not disclosed and a source close to DuPont described the sale as "non-material," meaning the company will not have to release details about the transaction in regulatory filings.

The sale is expected to close on Feb. 28.

DuPont has owned and operated the 104-year-old hotel for most of its existence, except for a brief period between 1927 and 1933 when it was managed by Bowman-Biltmore Co. The 12-story Italian Renaissance building, known to locals as just "The Hotel," has been considered Wilmington's "front door" ever since it opened in 1913.

"It is most unusual," Turkel said of DuPont's lengthy ownership. "I can't think of another hotel that has lasted so long with one company. Some hotels were passed down through family connections, but I don't think they lasted more than 100 years."

Buccini/Pollin's interest in the property has been known since April 2015 when it was identified as one of two local groups competing to the buy the property. It was viewed as a favorite because of its local ties and experience managing hotels.

The acquisition of DuPont's hospitality business will give Buccini/Pollin full control over the sprawling DuPont Building complex along Market Street, just across from Rodney Square. Last month, Buccini/Pollin agreed to purchase the entire property, including the hotel, office and theater operations from Chemours, which assumed control over the physical building that houses all three when it was spun off from DuPont in July 2015.

In April 2015, Buccini/Pollin acquired the hotel's three parking lots from DuPont. A sales price was not disclosed.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki said he was "relieved" the hotel will remain in local hands.

"We know that Buccini/Pollin Group will move forward with respect for what the hotel means to Wilmington and will operate it with great responsibility and class," he said.

No residential conversion planned

Buccini/Pollin will continue to use the Hotel du Pont name and operate it as a hospitality property.

Turkel said retaining the name is important symbolically.

"As long as it keeps the name, there is an obligation to keep it at that luxury level," he said.

Although the Buccini/Pollin is the largest residential developer in Wilmington, Hare said there are no plans to convert hotel rooms into condominiums or apartments. Last month, Buccini/Pollin said it could transform some of the DuPont Building's unused office space into residential units.

"The plan is to operate it as a hotel and hospitality space," Hare said. "The 217 rooms will remain as hotel rooms and the public spaces would continue to function as public spaces."

A number of historic hotels have recently undergone residential transformations after a sale. In New York, some of the Plaza Hotel's rooms were converted into residential space and a similar changeover is occurring at the Waldorf Astoria. The Waldorf Astoria shut down last year while it becomes a residential property.

William Sullivan, formerly managed the Hotel du Pont and is now the general manager of the Courtyard Newark-University of Delaware, said the downtown Wilmington marketplace would be more supportive of a luxury hotel than another residential property.

"It is an upscale hotel that has had very good occupancies," Sullivan said. "Chemours is staying in the city ... and they are going to get business from that entity. The legal business is still huge, and lawyers typically stay at the hotel. There is a lot of apartment development going on, and I don't see an immediate need for that."

The Hotel du Pont's renowned Green Room Restaurant and stately Gold Ballroom will remain. Both have become internationally known for their upscale reputation. In fact, Julia Child once cooked a "Good Morning America" segment in the two-and-half-story Green Room.

"It's is our intent to retain the Green Room and all of the extraordinary assets within the hotel," Hare said. "The hotel, as people recognize it, will largely stay the same."

Hare said the hotel's 100 full-time workers will become Buccini/Pollin employees. Buccini/Pollin also plans to hire the hotel's 100 contractual employees as full-time workers.

Contract workers who spoke with The News Journal on Tuesday welcomed the opportunity to become full-time Buccini/Pollin employees.

"I would love that," said Brice Chandler, a Wilmington resident who works multiple positions at the Green Room. "Right now, I don't get benefits or guaranteed hours."

Chandler works as a food runner, host and helps out with banquets. He said the best way contractors can get hours is by being able to do different jobs.

Sarah Jane Talley-Rabbani has spent the past three months as a contract employee at the Hotel du Pont, where her dad has worked for the past 26 years. She would look forward to becoming a full-time employee.

"I'm hoping it will raise my pay because they won't have to pay a middleman," she said, of the temp agency she works for.

Talley-Rabbani, who works in the Green Room as a food runner, said she enjoys working at the hotel, having known most of its employees since she was born.

"I love it here," she said. "They really care about their workers."

Buccini/Pollin has a comprehensive plan for restoring the hotel, but Hare declined to provide many details. One of the first steps, he said, would be to separate the mechanical and emergency systems shared by the hotel and office building.

"At that appropriate time, we will be more able to communicate about that," Hare said of the restoration. "This is the first and a very significant step in that process. We are honored that DuPont would entrust us with this asset. We know the responsibility that comes with that, and we know the expectations of the community and are committed to meet and exceed those expectations."

Sullivan said the hotel likely won't require substantial upgrades.

"The public spaces are in outstanding condition," he said. "It just needs a refresh that hotels need every eight to 10 years – carpets, drapes, covers. That's probably the first to refresh the guest rooms and bring them to a level that really complements the hotel."

It is unclear what will happen to the Hotel du Pont's art collection that includes work by Howard Pyle and the Wyeths. A collection by three generations of the Wyeth family hangs in the Brandywine & Christina Rooms. There are also paintings by local artists, including Ed Loper Sr., in the Green Room.

Neither DuPont nor Buccini/Pollin commented about the sale process or how many parties bid for the hotel business. Buccini/Pollin and a group of partners that ran Buckley's Tavern in Centreville, along with Buccini/Pollin, were among four groups competing to operate the 12-story downtown hotel at 11th and Market Street. The Buckley's Tavern group is a partnership that includes Labware founder Vance V. Kershner and Tom Hannum.

DuPont declined to comment on the sale, beyond a statement from Richard C. Olson, senior vice president, DuPont Corporate Services.

"We are very pleased to have found the right owner to ensure a bright future for this historic, world-class hotel and downtown Wilmington landmark," Olson said in the statement. "Under the ownership and expert management of BPG and PM Hotel Group, the Hotel du Pont will provide an enhanced luxury experience for the Delaware community and hotel guests from around the world."

DuPont Country Club hits sales block 

Separately, DuPont announced it will explore selling the DuPont Country Club at 1001 Rockland Road in Rockland. The company has not yet hired a broker, but a source familiar with the offering said a sale will be contingent upon the new owner continuing to operate the property as a country club and make an investment to upgrade the property.

Residents who live near the country club said DuPont’s intention to sell the facility is not a surprise.

“It’s one of those hoping for the best but at the same time concerned" situations, said longtime country club member David Mitchell, who lives in the Carillon Court neighborhood, off of Rockland Road.

"Residents of Brandywine Hundred feared the 525-acre site would be turned into a residential development after it was revealed Woodlawn Trustees Inc., a Wilmington company whose mission is to preserve land along the Brandywine, released deed restrictions in 2008 that once prohibited the club's development. The removal of the deed restrictions was made public by The News Journal in a 2015 article.

"As with the Hotel du Pont, the foremost consideration will be securing a bright future for the venerable club, and ensuring that it provides an even greater experience for its members and the Wilmington community," DuPont said in a statement announcing the sale.

New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner, a Brandywine Hundred resident, said DuPont must stand by its pledge to sell only to someone who will not alter the character of the facility.

“We are all encouraged by the DuPont Company’s affirmation to ensure the future ownership will continue to operate the property as a country club and make an investment in the property,” Weiner said.

DuPont had been under pressure to sell the hotel and country club since late 2014 when activist investor Nelson Peltz launched a proxy war for four seats on the company's board. Peltz claimed the hotel and theater were part of an estimated $2 billion to $4 billion in excess corporate costs. At that time, then-Chief Executive Ellen Kullman insisted the properties were not a burden on the company's bottom line but admitted DuPont would divest the properties if "appropriate value can be received for shareholders."

The DuPont Theater was the first business it jettisoned while in the middle of the nasty and costly proxy war with Peltz. The Grand Opera House assumed control of the theater, now operating it as the Playhouse on Rodney Square. Currently owned by Chemours, the Grand Opera House leases the theater's physical space from the chemical company headquartered in the DuPont Building. Once the property is sold to Buccini/Pollin, the Grand will lease the space from the developer, Hare said.

Hotel has 'storied' history

Buccini/Pollin's acquisition marks the first time in 104 years the Hotel du Pont will be owned by an organization other than its namesake corporation.

The hotel's cultural and social significance to the city and the state cannot be overstated. Birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries, after-funeral gatherings, grand galas, proms and other special occasions are part of its storied history. The Rotary Club of Wilmington has been meeting there continuously on the same day and same time for almost a century. Celebrations in the Green Room, the Gold Ballroom and the smaller du Barry Room are woven into the fabric of local families' lives. Moments there have become cherished memories.

"It's the center of the universe in Delaware for every major charitable, political or social event," said Tom Hannum, who spent 33 years working at the Hotel du Pont before retiring in 2011. "It was a special place to have special events."

Hannum said he, like many other Delawareans, proposed to his wife in the Green Room.

Sullivan said he was glad the hotel would be in the hands of a local company with an appreciation for its grand history.

"You don't need to explain the hotel's history to Buccini/Pollin," he said. "Its workers had their proms there and attended countless weddings and social events there. This is the best possible outcome."

The former executive chef and food and beverage manager, Hannum said staff was told to view Delaware students attending high school proms at the hotel as possible customers, the future brides and grooms who would one day come back and book wedding receptions in the Gold Ballroom. Generations of Delaware families come every year for the holiday teas as well as the Santa Claus and Mother's Day Sunday buffet brunches.

Last year, when Hannum and Kershner tried to buy the hotel, Hannum said the group was told that they had to be the good stewards of its history – keep the Hotel du Pont name as well as maintain its high standards.

Over the years, the hotel has welcomed a who's who of the world, including former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry S. Truman, President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Hoffa.

News Journal reporter Patricia Talorico contributed to this story.

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