Carson City’s Ormsby House work progressing
November 12, 2014
The Ormsby House will open after years of striving to revive the storied hotel and casino, says co-owner Don Lehr, but when must be a business decision.
Lehr, with Al Fiegehen, purchased Carson City's Ormsby House near 5th and Carson streets for $3.75 million in 1999 and later closed it, which was when Lehr contends they should have razed it and started over. On advice from others, he said, they decided eventually on extensive renovations. At week's end he said he intends to open the 10-story hotel, but turned aside every question about timing.
"I want to open it," he said, but during a tour of the hotel employed a matter-of-fact tone to parry every thrust about how soon. "I'm asked that all the time, I don't answer."
Chatting in his Ormsby House office before the tour, he gave a bit more insight into his thinking just before his colleague, Craig Furr, picked up on business aspects when they came up.
“I don’t have a date on it. I’m hoping to have a date.”
Don Lehr on when the Ormsby House will open
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"I don't have a date on it," said Lehr. "I'm hoping to have a date."
The obvious next question aimed at eliciting something more definitive began with the premise economic conditions are improving. Lehr turned that over to Furr, who provided a cheerful but serious challenge to the presumption about recovery, saying wages aren't up, young people can't buy homes and automobiles are priced or soon will be at upward of $50,000.
Furr, who later indicated he has worn many business hats on Lehr's behalf, said the one he was donning that day was assistant general manager. Both Lehr and Furr prefaced their tour with a history about what happens to aging casino hotels in Las Vegas.
"They blow them down," said Lehr. He said then and on the tour that among the reasons is such a building rehabilitation means modern and ever-changing code is a nightmare and it's tough to find a team to do the job.
"The problem is, you can't find anyone who has done this before."
The owners tried for a city permit to demolish the structure in Sept., 2003, but that didn't occur. Lehr on Friday indicated they proceeded with renovations but he now understands why in Clark County, the Vegas inclination is to raze such casinos and start over.
Challenges that have kept rehab completion at bay for years are lengthy, Lehr indicated, citing among them the need to deal with several buildings now merged into the 190,000 square foot structure, and modernization needs. He said the old rooms were too small, wiring, pipes and modern power and fire safety equipment were a must, and 21st century heating/air conditioning has to be included.
"This building did not have any insulation in it," Lehr said, speaking of the point 15 years ago when it was purchased.
Furr said wallpaper was stuck to the foundation, saying three pair of socks wasn't enough to stay warm inside during the winter months.
Lehr said for such a hotel, gaming and business conference establishment to compete, it must offer modern accommodations. He made it clear that was the goal and part of the reason for proceeding with care.
Some Carson City residents, after more than a decade of reconstruction work, have expressed concern about when or even if it will ever open. But Lehr and Furr made it clear on a tour offered two Nevada Appeal representatives that it could happen sooner than anticipated if conditions prove right.
Lehr said reconstruction work is further along than it might appear to someone unschooled in building matters.
"I'd like to see the HVAC (heating, air conditioning and ventilation) and power wrapped up early next year," Lehr said. "The lion's share is all behind us. I'll welcome giving people tours when it's all closed in."
By closed in, Lehr meant with dry wall and other interior work done to enclose the various rooms and put the structure nearer to the classy and modern lodging and gaming property he talks about while conducting tours. It will include 110 rooms, rather than the 135 originally envisioned, two restaurants, a gaming floor, a huge banquet-conference room with smaller breakout business rooms nearby, retailing, a fitness center, bars, a coffee shop and other assorted amenities. Among the rooms in the multi-story tower are some suites with a bedroom and bath accompanied by a small business conference room and second bath.
Lehr and Fiegehen also have Cubix Corp. in Carson City. Lehr, originally from Illinois, majored in physics there and helped start Cubix Corp. here. He and Fiegehen founded the technology company in 1975, just a few years after the city's late 20th century Ormsby House property opened in the Nevada state capital.
The 21st century Ormsby House question periodically prompts discussion in the community, with people expressing various opinions, and some ask why city government does nothing. City officials mostly say it's a private property matter and adopt a hands off approach, but there's a long history of Lehr and codes enforcement being at odds over aspects of the reconstruction.
Lehr sounded particularly discontented with his inability to keep a fourth-floor swimming pool, which is likely being turned into a solarium area to raise vegetables, and how to handle reconstruction of the historic staircase in the lobby. Since City Manager Nick Marano came in June, however, Lehr sees some improvement.
"Things look a little better," he said.
Lehr didn't go into precise figures going into the reconstruction but years ago it was pegged at upward of $25 million.
The Ormsby House retains its gaming license at The Ormsby Club, which opens on Fridays and Saturdays and is located behind the hotel inside the attached parking garage structure on Curry Street. In 2011, Bill Eadington, formerly of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the businessmen may have a good case for keeping the gaming property closed considering the gambling market in Carson City. New competition has come online here and elsewhere. "It's not the best situation in the world," he said. "Ideally you want to open into a market that's under-supplied." Eadington died in 2013.
The original Ormsby House was built in 1859 at 2nd and Carson streets, but was demolished in 1931. The 21st century version on the southwest corner of Carson and 5th streets, was originally built and opened in the last century by Paul Laxalt in the early 1970s. Laxalt is a former governor and Nevada senator from Carson City.