By JACK WEATHERLY
Seven years since planning and financing started and two years under construction, the Jackson Westin hotel opened its doors Thursday morning.
But first a gathering of about 150 seated in padded white folding chairs beneath the slatted porte cochere offering dappled shade from sunny skies, though not from humidity, put Westin hand fans to good use as speakers extolled the achievement.
Joseph Simpson, one of a group of investors in the nine-story edifice, praised local and state government for helping to raise $60 million to $65 million to build it, saying — bottom line — it gives regional travelers a good “reason to stop.”
The 203-guestroom hotel at 407 S. Congress St. in downtown invited visitors to wander around the lobby and Estelle Wine Bar and Bistro, eat hors d’oeurves, sip mimosas or bottled spring water, greet, gawk and tour the rest of the structure.
General Manager Mike Burton, who was on hand for the final months of the buildout of the hotel, said it is fully staffed with about 160 people, the vast majority of whom are full-time, most from the Jackson area.
The staff has gone through dry runs for several weeks so that all facets of the operation could be polished, Burton said.
Burton, a veteran hotelier who hails from Michigan and has worked around the country, said he is impressed with the staff’s “genuine friendliness,” a hallmark of Southern hospitality.
That regional trait will be enhanced by the communication system at the hotel, he said.
A staff member will ask a guest his or her name and will relay that to wherever the guest is headed in the hotel, “so they won’t have to be asked twice” to identify themselves, Burton said.
The first guest, Joseph VanZandt, a lawyer with the Montgomery, Ala., firm of Beasley Allen, booked a room Thursday for 17 days. The firm booked one of the meeting rooms that that night. The hotel offers 12,000 square feet for meetings.
Rooms start at $123 for preferred guests, excluding taxes and fees, according to the website – with the Presidential Suite topping the list at $1,500 a night.
That big corner suite, with a northeast view that shows the dome of the Old Capitol, has separate sleeping, dining and lounging areas. Its bathroom include digital settings for precise water temperatures. The suite can be expanded to include an adjoining junior suite.
Marriott International bought Starwood Properties last year, whose Westin brand was included in the $13 billion deal. Starwood’s Preferred Guests program was one of the things that caught Marriott’s attention.
The Executive Club Lounge is available to Starwood Preferred Guests who are gold or platinum members, said Alex Davis, sales coordinator, adding that others can upgrade to use it.
Pulling financing together for the hotel was a struggle.
Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary broke the logjam when he ruled in April 2015 that the project was urban redevelopment and thus the city could put up $10 million as collateral. Singletary ruled against developer Don Hewitt, who argued that the state Constitution prohibits such use.
Hewitt had hoped to take part in the future development of a convention center hotel in downtown and worried the Westin would diminish demand.
Hinds County is pledging $20 million of state money authorized by the Legislature. There were no bidders on the city’s bond issue and so the Jackson Redevelopment Authority borrowed $9 million.
A smiling Virgi Lindsay, newly elected councilwoman for Ward 7, in which the hotel is located said: “We finally have a Westin in Mississippi and downtown Jackson.”
As with many full-service hotels, there is a fitness room and an on-premises spa — but a guest at this Mississippi hostelry can check out a replica of a guitar used by one of several famous Magnolia State natives, such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley, and play it — in the privacy of his room.