There's no doubt that Hotel Bennett, the 179 room hotel that opened on King Street this past week, is beautiful — and big. At Friday's grand opening and ribbon cutting, the Charleston Visitors' Bureau's Helen Hill described the hotel as a "shining example of Southern hospitality." Back in November the hotel hosted a hiring event for over 200 positions, from "guest service agent" to "massage therapist."
Friday's opening was marked by speeches from managing director, Paul Cherrett; as well as Hill; Sheila Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts; the current mayor, John Tecklenburg; the former mayor, Joe Riley; and the owner of Bennett Hospitality, Michael Bennett. There was a color guard. We stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem.
Each speaker used the word "civic" to describe Hotel Bennett — as in, the hotel is a beneficial addition to our community. Bennett himself referred to the hotel as "our hotel," encouraging Charlestonians to use the open spaces on the first floor of the building; "you don't have to buy anything," said Bennett. The offer, made to a crowd of over 100 people, was generous, but not likely one anyone in the crowd would ever need to utilize.
From the rooftop of Bennett you can see the Francis Marion Hotel, two massive structures sitting on King Street, housing up to 414 rooms of out-of-town guests. Continuing North on King Street there's Hyatt House and Hyatt Place, the two smedium hotels slotted next to each other so as to not run afoul of city size restrictions. And there's Hampton Inn, over on Meeting Street. South of Calhoun we've got Belmond Charleston Place, Days Inn, The Mills House, the Kings Courtyard Inn ... the list goes on. There are hotels that call themselves "boutique," and those that fall into the cozier B&B category.
There are a lot of places to stay in downtown Charleston.
Hill marveled at how far Upper King Street has come in the past ten years. Bennett shared in her sentiment, talking about how "boarded up" Upper King was a mere four decades ago in the 1970s. Other than Marion Square itself, Upper King was, according to the speakers at Hotel Bennett's grand opening, pretty much a no man's land.
When I moved to Charleston five and a half years ago, Upper King was the place to be. I drank cocktails at Warehouse, flirted with college boys at the Alley, and brunched at Rarebit. On nights out now I rarely travel south of Spring Street.
Mornings, I regularly buy coffee from Harbinger Cafe, 1.5 miles north of the Alley on King Street. My idea of "Upper King" has evolved rapidly in the past few years, giving me my own perspective, albeit compressed, into how this city is changing. Where Hill and Bennett see opportunity, I see more cute bars, sure, but a hell of a lot more cranes, too. I see massive construction sites hawking "retail space" and "rooftop views." I can't compare Charleston now to Charleston in the 1970s. But I can say that the rent of the (precious) apartment I used to rent on Bee Street has gone up by almost 50 percent in the past few years.
I don't live downtown, I haven't in four years now. I can't afford to rent downtown, let alone buy a home. My husband and I peruse the listings of downtown houses sometimes. It's almost a fun game, until it's not.
What does it mean that Upper King has changed so much? That the city has changed so much? For guys like Bennett, it means big bucks. He mentioned renting a block down near the market many years ago, which he said he paid $100 a month for. An entire city block. From the dais, Bennett shouted out to the block's former owner, hotelier Hank Holliday, "How much did you sell that for?" Bennett answered his own question: "Over $100 million."
Impressive, sure. But is the increase in the value of downtown property truly beneficial to everyone in Charleston? What are 200 hospitality jobs to people who can't afford to park, let alone live, anywhere close by?
I appreciate Michael Bennett's offer to Charleston to share in the delights of Hotel Bennett. And sure, when I'm feeling flush, I'll take myself to the rooftop pool for a drink. And then I'll get another paycheck and hop over to the Vendue. And then to the Restoration. After that, to the Spectator. Perhaps I'll swing by the Market Pavilion.
I'm not sure we needed another massive hotel (even one with a rooftop pool) in downtown Charleston. And no, Mayor Riley, I don't think a high quality hotel will necessarily add to the "city's fabric." Friday morning, as Bennett talked about his million dollar projects, especially the gargantuan one that faces Marion Square and the half-dozen nearby, I couldn't help but feel a little sad.
I love this city, but I can't help but wonder, is the sanctification of projects like Hotel Bennett helping or hurting us?