The familiar structure that rises among wetlands near I-95 has long stood as a symbol of a well-publicized land use battle between New Castle County government and developers. Now, more than a decade since it was built, the hotel is finally getting to do something it’s never done before: open for business.
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That “marketing” began in 1990 when New Castle County approved a plan by local developers Albert Vietri and Joseph L. Capano Sr., operating as Wilmington Hospitality LLC, to build a six-story hotel on a controversial property along Interstate 95 between Christiana and Wilmington.
For many New Castle County residents, the story has become all too familiar. As the developers finished construction of the hotel during the summer of 2000—it was franchised as a classy Radisson—county inspectors discovered the building was more than 30 percent larger than the approved plans allowed. It wasn’t built taller than its blueprint, the hotel simply contained extra square footage equivalent to two floors. New Castle County officials refused to grant the developers the certificate of occupancy that would have allowed them to open for business.
The resulting court battles between two different New Castle County administrations and Wilmington Hospitality would drag on for years, capturing many headlines in the process.
The county said the developers intentionally overbuilt, while the developers claimed it was a hiccup between their architects and engineers. The developers also charged that the county should have caught the discrepancy when it issued building permits in 1998.
Tom Gordon, who served as county executive at the time, still isn’t buying any of it.
“You couldn’t miss it by that much,” he says. “You don’t add that much square footage and not know it.”
Dave Culver, the current general manager of the county’s land use department, who worked in the department’s planning division during the time of the hotel controversy, says there is no scapegoat from the county’s side.
“I don’t believe there’s any one person to blame,” he says. “The plans reviewed were for a hotel in New Castle County. Certification is required for the hotel. During final inspection a lot of discrepancies were being discovered. It led to years of administrative approval and litigation.”
Not knowing when they might be allowed to open the hotel, the owners had to let employees go.
Billy Walsh, now a senior sales executive at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, was hired and trained at the former Radisson as a front desk agent. A junior at the University of Delaware’s hotel and restaurant management program at the time, Walsh was hired during the spring of 2000 and then laid off with the hotel’s other 100-plus employees just before summer.
“The worst part of the whole situation was people losing jobs,” Walsh says. “The GM and assistant GM had quit their previous jobs. Some came from the Hotel du Pont and Philly-area hotels. They were banking on the hotel to open. I was in college, so it wasn’t a life-changer for me.”
Walsh recalls the day the ax fell. “They called us all in for a mandatory meeting. The GM was almost in tears. Human Relations was there. They said they didn’t know when they were getting the certificate of occupancy, didn’t know when they were opening and it cost too much to keep staff when they’re not open.
“The lights were on. The heat was on. It was ready to open. That’s the part that bothers me.”
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