Savannah’s Historic District may be defined by its exquisite, beautifully preserved architecture, but thanks to increased tourism in the last 20 years, the Hostess City’s hospitality scene has evolved to be just as distinguished. And it is about to become even more so.
Hotelier and southern entrepreneur Richard C. Kessler is best known for blessing the Southeast with the Grand Bohemian hotel brand — they operate as close as Bay Street and as far as Beaver Creek Colorado — as well as the stately Mansion on Forsyth. In the next five years, another Kessler hotel will appear on the horizon of the Savannah Riverfront.
Kessler’s Plant Riverside District will redefine not only the Savannah hotel skyline but the mood and culture of River Street as a whole. This will not be a large hotel complex, but a sprawling entertainment destination for tourists and locals alike. For Kessler, that is what makes this project so unique in addition to the obvious ambition of revamping the hotel’s skeleton: a long-untouched Georgia Power plant and facility.
“I had my eyes on that property for a long time, knowing one day it would go up for sale, and when it came up for sale we immediately put in an offer,” Kessler said. “We had other competitors trying to do things which they didn’t have the vision we did, much more limited as to what they wanted to do. We were able to acquire it with the idea of making it into a multi-use entertainment complex, and that’s what it is. It’s not just a hotel. It’s an entertainment complex.”
The hotel itself will have three 4.5-5 star luxury hotels with a total of 419 rooms scattered throughout five unique buildings. According to Kessler, he did not want his guests lodged in one or two monolithic buildings, as he and his architecture team concluded it was not the right approach to what the overall design would convey.
It took over four years for the project’s concept phase to materialize in a groundbreaking in late 2016. After Kessler acquired the property, he brought together about 30 Savannah civic leaders, designers and architects to discuss how the real estate would be divided and used. Kessler asked his team what they would do if they owned the property as well as a city-focused inquiry: “What does Savannah need?”
“We spent all day in the meeting room area of the Bohemian [Hotel Savannah Riverfront] with flip charts making lists of everybody’s ideas,” Kessler said. “I gave them a tour of the property so they could see what the historic building looked like. Then they said, ‘Oh my god, Richard! What are you going to do with this?’ I really had in mind converting it into a hotel. I had looked at it close enough to conclude it could be done — not easily, but it could be done.”
About a month later, Kessler held a similar charrette at his Bohemian Hotel Celebration in Orlando. Once again, he assembled roughly 30 business professionals and designers to build on the ideas formulated in Savannah. The result was the creation of Plant Riverside’s final master plan, which includes a 4.5 acre riverfront entertainment district, 1.5 acres of public parks and plazas, and a quarter mile of new river walk among other enhancements that will revitalize River Street. The district’s plan also includes a 488-space parking deck, something Kessler believes will be useful in rebranding River Street.
“You’ve got all these cars going up and down looking for a place to park and the few little spots, which are very important pieces of property the city owns, sitting on the river,” Kessler said. “Then you’ve got all these trucks and buses going up and down River Street which makes it, in a sense, a miserable place, and that’s easily fixable.”
According to Kessler, he and his team have been in talks with city officials about the concept of closing off River Street to trucks, buses, and cars after a certain hour in order to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
Kessler, who has been the chairman and CEO of The Kessler Enterprise, Inc. since 1984, currently owns and oversees nine hotels. Plant Riverside is his most ambitious project to date. With a price tag of $275 million, it is the largest private project ever pursued in Savannah’s history. In Kessler’s eyes, Plant Riverside will change the face of tourism in Savannah and its image as publicised to the world.
“Savannah’s never really had a high quality entertainment district,” Kessler explained. “What we’re trying to do is bring in another quality level to Savannah to set a new bar in the entertainment, music, art, architecture, retail and hotels.”