It won’t be long before construction begins on the Hotel Madison and Shenandoah Valley Conference Center at the intersection of Grace and Main Streets. Many Harrisonburg residents are undoubtedly wondering what the venue will be like and how it will impact the downtown area.
I recently met with Paul Gladd, the developer of the hotel and conference center, to learn more about the hotel and his vision. Gladd believes that his project brings with it a personal responsibility to the Harrisonburg community. Part of this responsibility is to create space for local businesses and organizations to host conferences and other events, as well as encourage guests to patronize downtown businesses by placing the hotel and conference center along Main Street. “We want to create a venue that will be viable for multiple groups,” says Gladd.
The project has what Gladd calls a “perfect combination” of two strong partners: the City of Harrisonburg and James Madison University. By working together, the vibrant downtown and the college's growing Hospitality Management program become even stronger assets for the community and the hotel's guests.
Initially, the east side of JMU’s campus (on the other side of Interstate 81) was being considered for the hotel and conference center's location. However, Gladd strongly discouraged construction there, favoring instead a spot along Main Street where the hotel can be integrated with downtown and guests can walk to nearby businesses and attractions. He believed that placing this project in the middle of campus would not connect with the greater Harrisonburg community, and would decrease the likelihood of traffic flow to downtown businesses.
As a JMU alum, Gladd believes the hotel and conference center will fill a noticed void in the community. Having done extensive work with hotels in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, Gladd often encounters people from Harrisonburg at conferences hours away from home. This facility is designed to bring those conferences here. “They always have to go somewhere else that is usually more expensive,” he explains. “That’s where the idea came from to create a facility in an area that would appreciate a lot of tourism and business travelers coming to the community.”
This project is not the first that Gladd has worked on in the Valley. He was also the developer behind the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton, which he has owned for 10 years. “The experience of owning that property gives me great insight into the type of travelers and conference groups who are interested in coming to the Shenandoah Valley,” he says.
“We’re in a challenging time from an economic standpoint where jobs are difficult to come by,” Gladd observes. He expects the hotel and conference center will bring approximately 100 new jobs to downtown Harrisonburg, which Gladd hopes will encourage employees to live as well as work downtown. This is in addition to the many construction jobs the project will also create.
As we continued to discuss the project, it was no surprise that parking came up in the conversation. Parking space downtown has been a concern for many with the addition of this venue. Gladd was eager to assuage these concerns. “We want to take the immediate pressure off the city by having conference center guests utilize parking that JMU has provided, which will then naturally encourage them to walk downtown,” explains Gladd, who anticipates a greater increase in pedestrian traffic more so than vehicular traffic. A trolley-type system and rentable bikes are additional transportation solutions currently being considered to transport guests downtown.
Gladd also believes the project will generate business for other hotels and hospitality businesses in the area rather than competing, noting that when its 230 hotel rooms are booked, event guests will seek rooms at nearby facilities.
“The spirit of the deal is to bring new groups to town,” he says, but also notes that there will be ample use from students in JMU’s Hospitality Management program, as well as availability to the Harrisonburg community. Students in the program will be able to gain valuable real-world experience working in the hotel and conference center--a benefit that will give the program an added advantage, as many similar programs are not able to offer students an opportunity to learn in such a high-quality facility on campus.
A portion of the hotel along Grace Street will include retail space that could feature wares from local artisans. “There’s so many artists here whose work we could feature. It would be great for people visiting to be able to take a bit of Shenandoah Valley craftsmanship home with them,” Gladd says.
In terms of a brand for the project, “The hotel itself is not going to be branded,” explains Gladd. The look and feel of the hotel will feature themes that reflect the Harrisonburg area.
The groundbreaking will be scheduled soon with a target completion date of March 2018.
Written by Katelyn Quinley, a graduate student in JMU's Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication program, and a communicationsintern at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.