The race is on.

For years, city leaders and economic experts have said that Bozeman lacks a downtown hotel. Now, several are in the works.

From the high-end Etha hotel to a low-cost underground hotel on Main Street, developers are scrambling to offer rooms in the city center.

The Downtown Bozeman Improvement Plan, which was prepared for the Downtown Bozeman Partnership and city of Bozeman, lists the need for a “boutique” hotel. The plan was adopted in 2010.

“It was identified way back then that Bozeman lacked an appropriate downtown hotel,” said Brit Fontenot, Bozeman's director of economic development.

The report states that the university, hospital and businesses reported a need for such a hotel.

“In some ways it is surprising that a community the size of Bozeman's stature does not already have a small 50-80 room, ‘four star' hotel,” the plan states.

The document listed possible barriers such as parking concerns and the difficulty of finding a “highly visible, well-located property of sufficient size.”

After the plan came out, the Bozeman City Commission got a hold of the idea and decided to put it on its priority list, Fontenot said.

But those weren't the only people who saw the need.

“It definitely has been identified, not only in that plan but also by downtown stakeholders and leaders that, considering the downtown climate, it is lacking an equally high-quality hotel,” said Chris Naumann, executive director of the Downtown Bozeman Partnership.

Bringing such a hotel downtown would fill a niche, Naumann said.

“If you have visitors, whether they're tourists or on a business trip spending the night downtown, they're obviously going to gravitate to the businesses downtown,” he said.

A couple of years ago, a North Carolina group proposed buying the Carnegie parking lot downtown and build a hotel on the land; but the group withdrew its plans in December 2011.

Even though the group withdrew, that sparked the interest of others to build a downtown hotel, Fontenot said.

The idea of a “boutique” hotel grabbed the attention of investors who ran with it and proposed the Etha hotel on the site of the old National Guard Armory. In February, the investment group behind the Etha filed an informal application with the city planning department.

“At the time that was the only hotel concept or idea that was on the table,” Fontenot said.

Since then other hotels have been proposed, including the New Imperial 400 at the old Imperial Inn location; the Hotel at Block G at the old Kenyon Noble site; Bozeman Backpacker Hotel, which would provide rooms with shared bathrooms in an underground hotel on East Main Street; and the Story Mansion Inn.

Because of the diversity of the projects and their expected room costs, Fontenot said he believes there is space downtown for a variety of hotels.

“Based on what we know, each proposal is looking at a different niche in the market,” Fontenot said.

It is up to the developers to ensure their business models fit, he added.

“We expect the developers have done their homework,” he said.

Bozeman Backpacker Hotel

The newest hotel proposed for downtown Bozeman is the Bozeman Backpacker Hotel.

Owner and developer Bill Butler compared the concept to low-cost European inns or an “underground Ikea.” It's a hotel, but the functionality is more like a hostel, he said.

The 16-room hotel will have shared bathrooms and a large common area, Butler said. It will be located under The Crossroads shop at 27 E. Main St., in the space formerly occupied by Main Street Fitness.

Rooms are expected to cost $30 per night, Butler said.

“It's on Main Street, so it's accessible. It's very competitive pricewise,” he said.

Construction has started, and Butler said he is hoping to open Bozeman Backpacker Hotel in January 2014.

The Etha

When the need for a downtown hotel originally surfaced, plans called for a boutique hotel.

“That's in fact what we're going after,” said Cory Lawrence, head of the investment group behind the hotel and CEO of Off the Beaten Path, a Bozeman-based adventure travel company.

Plans for the Etha were submitted to the city's building department in August. Now, investors are expecting to have the building permit within the next week or two.

“Once the building permit is in hand then, for us, it's about building this great hotel,” Lawrence said.

Upon completion, the Etha is expected to be the tallest building in downtown Bozeman, taller than the Hotel Baxter. The eight-story, 102-room hotel would be built on top of the historic National Guard Armory. It will house a meeting and convention space, an event venue, two restaurants and other amenities.

“This is a property that is a four-star hotel property that offers all the features and amenities of a four-star,” Lawrence said.

Investors want to create a “unique experience for Bozeman,” he said.

Opening is projected for spring 2015.

New Imperial 400

Plans for renovating the crumbling Imperial Inn at the corner of Main Street and Grand Avenue call for revamping the old building and turning it into an “upcycled 1960s-era motor lodge.”

Plans call for 38 guest rooms, like the former Imperial Inn.

While the working name for the project is the “New Imperial 400,” a permanent name has not been finalized, said Erik Nelson, one of the owners of ThinkTank Design Group, a Bozeman-based architecture firm that filed paperwork with the city for the hotel renovation.

The project's paperwork was approved in October.

“We are still moving ahead. We are hoping to get our building permits and things submitted in time for construction to start at the first of the year,” Nelson said.

“The Imperial Inn is looking at a different market than the Etha,” Fontenot said.

Nelson agrees that the project is unique.

“We think we have a very unique location and a much different approach than franchises and other types of hotels. This is a locally owned, locally operated facility, and it'll really engage the local community,” Nelson said.

“I think it's doing something good for Bozeman. That was an objective for the team and identifying that this particular property had fallen into disrepair and we wanted to seize the opportunity to upcycle that,” he added.

The hotel is projected to open in fall 2014.

Hotel at Block G

A proposal is also in the works to demolish the old Kenyon Noble building on Mendenhall Street and build a new hotel in its place.

Plans call for a 104-room, nationally branded hotel to be built at the corner of Mendenhall Street and Black Avenue. Amenities will include meeting space, a kitchen pantry and lounge, a fitness center and a retail space, which the applicant expects to be a restaurant, with an outdoor patio.

The project's working title is “Hotel at Block G,” but the final name won't be determined until a national brand is chosen.

So far, a handful of national brands have submitted proposals, and one should be chosen in the next couple of weeks, said applicant Andy Holloran of HomeBase Montana, LLC.

Final site plans were turned in to the city Wednesday.

“As soon as we get building permits, we'll start construction,” Holloran said.

Holloran said HomeBase saw the need for such a hotel and is moving forward with plans to build.

“We have clients in from out of town and everybody wonders why there isn't a nice, newer hotel downtown,” he said. “We're thrilled to be a part of it.”

The hotel is planned to open May 1, 2015.

The Kenyon Noble building on Mendenhall Street has been empty since the business moved to its location on Oak Street in 2006.

The fact that the proposed “Hotel at Block G” will have a national brand attached to it sets it apart from the other projects, Fontenot said.

The Story Mansion Inn

Although it is south of downtown, a fifth hotel has been proposed: the Story Mansion Inn.

In November, the Story Mansion Inn Group offered the city between $500,000 and $900,000 to turn the mansion into a high-end inn.

The proposal calls for the mansion and its carriage house to hold 17 rooms with private bathrooms, including 11 in the mansion and six in the carriage house. It would also have a meeting space in the carriage house, the proposal states.

Erin Schattauer can be reached at 582-2628 or eschattauer@dailychronicle.com. She’s on Twitter at @erinschattauer.

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