Major rehab planned for Marconi

For years, the Marconi Conference Center squeaked by, cut off from limited California State Parks funding and strapped for the cash necessary to restore the crumbling buildings at the historic park. When the pandemic put a stop to conferences last year, the nonprofit that runs the site on the east shore of Tomales Bay struggled to keep the lights on. 

Now, a new for-profit company is planning to reopen the historic hotel, which has been closed to guests for more than 50 years.

This fall, the state plans to sign a 55-year operating agreement with the newly formed Marconi Hospitality, a group of investors that will serve as the sub-operator for the nonprofit Marconi Conference Center Operating Corporation.

“This has been a maddening process, but now we’re at the finish line,” said Hal Russek, the operating corporation’s executive director. “The leisure business is going to be a necessary evil to attract a for-profit, because we’re putting on them the obligation of restoring the historic buildings.” 

State Parks itself was a major client of the conference center before the pandemic, holding staff trainings there. But the agency began to prioritize restoring and reopening the hotel for visitors, both to create a new source of revenue and to put a better face on the state park. 

“The Marconi Hotel is the first thing you see when you drive up, and it has been sitting empty for years,” said Maria Mowery, the Bay Area district superintendent for State Parks. “For any of the sub-operators we worked with, we really wanted the hotel to be rehabbed, not just to sit empty.”

The nonprofit is not a concessionaire with the Marconi State Historic Park, but rather an operator, meaning it is also charged with restoring the park’s historic buildings. The property is home to a century-old hotel and cottages built by Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, to house employees of his transpacific receiving station. Only two of the five historic buildings on the property have been restored: Buck Hall was refurbished in 1992 and a smaller cabin was converted into a conference room in 2006.

Representatives of the for-profit Marconi Hospitality met with community members last month to discuss issues like public access to the park and water usage. The East Shore Planning Group board attended a Zoom meeting with Rodney Fong, a prominent San Francisco real estate investor and city planning commissioner who is a partner in the new project. 

Mr. Fong is the president and C.E.O. of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and owned the Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf for almost 30 years. 

“Marconi is a precious site in West Marin,” Mr. Fong told the Light. “We recognize its contributions historically, but also currently. We want to get it operational, but do it in a way that we are celebrating the area.” 

Mr. Fong said it was too early to discuss the specifics of the forthcoming sub-operating agreement, but he said his company still values the nonprofit conferences that Marconi relied on for years and will continue to bring them to the center during the week, along with more weekend tourists. 

The American Marconi Company, which operated the transoceanic radio station, sold the property to the Radio Corporation of America in 1920, and the station was decommissioned 20 years later. The Synanon Foundation, a drug rehabilitation group that engaged in criminal activities, counted the site among its West Marin properties for years. 

In 1980, the San Francisco Foundation purchased the property from Synanon. The foundation owned the land for about a decade before donating it to State Parks on the condition that it be used as a conference center and kept open to the public. For more than 25 years, the state subsidized the nonprofit operator with yearly payments of $172,000. 

The 2008 economic crisis upended State Parks finances, and the agency began pursuing private partnerships to attract visitors and operate facilities. In 2016, the state suspended its payments to the nonprofit M.C.C.O.C., adding pressure on the conference center to become financially solvent. “The state’s got no money. The nonprofit’s got no money,” Mr. Russek said. 

The nonprofit began seeking a private, for-profit sub-operator willing to take a risk on the 52-acre property. The company would have to be willing to painstakingly restore the buildings, which are protected in the National Register of Historic Places. “There was not a long line of suitors,” Mr. Russek said.

Artistree-Marconi was selected as a sub-operator. The company envisioned building two dozen “eco-lodging” cabins at the property, but it was headed by entrepreneur Amy Beilharz, who also became the executive director of the M.C.C.O.C. Two years after taking the job, in 2018, Ms. Beilharz stepped down from the nonprofit over conflict-of-interest concerns. Artistree signed a letter of commitment but never formalized an operating agreement with the nonprofit, and negotiations fell apart during the pandemic. 

“There wasn’t going to be anything we could do to come to terms,” Ms. Mowery said. “Negotiations fell apart with the change in the economy and the lack of demand for hotel rooms.” 

The pandemic made the conference center’s financial need even more urgent. “As the pandemic drew on, they were no longer able to keep the lights on,” Ms. Mowery said. 

So the nonprofit sought out the group of investors led by Mr. Fong to revamp the hotel. In a draft operating agreement with the nonprofit, Marconi Hospitality detailed its plans to restore the property over the next five years. The agreement will last more than half a century, enough time for the company to get a return on its investment. The state estimates that the company will take in an average of $825,950 annually once the facilities are reopened. 

Marconi Hospitality will spend an estimated $6 million on preliminary renovations before moving on to the major construction phase, which will cost up to $27 million. This phase entails building up to 52 new cabins, converting the operations building into a wellness center, renovating the Marconi Hotel, and adding onsite employee housing. The company presented a brand inspiration for the renovations that it says was inspired by the Third Bay Tradition of architecture and Sea Ranch, the most notable example of the style.

The five-year estimate assumes no regulatory or permitting delays, but the regulatory hurdles are many. The major construction phase of the project will require approval by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Marin County planners and the California Coastal Commission and a review under the California Environmental Quality Act. The company will continue to consult with the East Shore Planning Group; last month, the group sent a letter urging the developers to retain relationships with nonprofits for conferences, to initiate more dialogue about water and drought issues, and to use recycled water for landscaping.

The Marconi Hospitality investors are affiliated with BNA Associates, a large real estate development company based in Nashville, Tenn. that has invested in numerous hotel projects across the country, including a $15 million rehabilitation of the Station House Inn, a motel in South Lake Tahoe. Mr. Fong’s local partners are Adam Mendelson and Jon Larner, who have invested in and managed various event spaces and restaurants in San Francisco. 

Ms. Mowery said State Parks is satisfied with the company’s credentials as experienced developers. “They’ve done adaptive reuse,” she said. “They are used to working with government agencies.”

State Parks has approved the operating agreement, which is now being considered by the state’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Once approved, it will return to Mr. Russek and Mr. Fong for signatures, and the process should be finished this month.

 

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