Madison held the official groundbreaking for a $21 million project to renovate the 1884 Cotton Mill on the Ohio River into a boutique Fairfield by Marriott hotel and conference center. Pictured at groundbreaking are (from left): the city’s Bob Cooke and Andrew Forrester, Marty Richardson with Old National Bank, Vince Dora with Dora Hospitality, Glenn Gellert with Riverton LLC, a shovel honoring the memory of Mayor Damon Welch, city planner and preservation coordinator Nicole Schell, John McGrew and Ron Bateman, both with Riverton LLC, Trevor Lane with Indiana Economic Development Corporation and Acting Mayor Dan Dattilo. (Courier staff photo by Mark Campbell)
Madison held the official groundbreaking for a $21 million project to renovate the 1884 Cotton Mill on the Ohio River into a boutique Fairfield by Marriott hotel and conference center. Pictured at groundbreaking are (from left): the city’s Bob Cooke and Andrew Forrester, Marty Richardson with Old National Bank, Vince Dora with Dora Hospitality, Glenn Gellert with Riverton LLC, a shovel honoring the memory of Mayor Damon Welch, city planner and preservation coordinator Nicole Schell, John McGrew and Ron Bateman, both with Riverton LLC, Trevor Lane with Indiana Economic Development Corporation and Acting Mayor Dan Dattilo. (Courier staff photo by Mark Campbell)
A project that’s taken years in the making and the dedicated effort of dozens reached a ceremonial milestone Saturday with the groundbreaking on a $21 million project to rehabilitate the 1884 Eagle Cotton Mill building on Madison’s riverfront into a boutique hotel and conference center by 2021.

Developers, investors, bankers, governmental leaders and a crowd of about 60 were on hand to turn soil and trigger what will be a whirlwind transformation over the next several months. Local residents can expect to see great change in the building by the spring of 2020 and a grand reopening with an entirely new purpose about the same time the following year.

The three-story, 104,000-square-foot building located at 108 St. Michaels Avenue overlooking the Ohio River, served as a twine and fabric factory, shipping its goods along the Ohio River until closing in 1937. The building was later purchased by Madison-based Meese Inc. which used it for manufacturing until the early 1980s before remaining vacant the past 30 years.

Located in Madison’s huge National Historic Landmark District, the site came to be included on Indiana Landmarks’ list of 10 Most Endangered Historic Structures as multiple city administrations struggled to find a developer and investors to save the brick and wooden structure from decay and ruin.

That finally happened earlier this year when Ron Batemen of Riverton LLC, a retired Alaskan with ties to Indiana, stepped forward and started working with the city — and just about anyone else who could help — to put the project together.

The project’s potential, the city’s Stellar community designation and related economic development financing helped the developers, investors and future tenant, Dora Hospitality and Fairfield by Marriott, nudge the project toward Saturday’s start that will conclude with a 2021 finish.

Riverton will receive $4.75 million in tax credits, which the city plans to match with $4 million in cash through a bonding process, and $750,000 in city tax abatements and infrastructure projects near the development site.

Bateman, who moved to Madison with his wife, Marlene, to retire, said he got involved in the project through the spirit of volunteerism and love of community that runs rampant in Madison, but in the end it took a “herd of people” to get to Saturday’s groundbreaking.

“One of the things that impressed me about Madison when we got here was the love that people have in this town. Evidence for that is the high level of volunteerism that you see all over town and I began thinking what could I do?” Bateman, an architect by trade, said. “And it occurred to me that this kind of project fits my life experience and maybe this crazy project is something that could happen, so I began to look at it.

“And of course I was thinking in terms of housing which is what my experience was to this point. But Nicole (Schell) said ‘No, no, no, no.’ and (Mayor Damon Welch) said ‘No, no, no. We need a hotel.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know much about hotels but let’s see how far we get and if it’s absolutely impossible maybe they’ll let us do housing.’ But to my surprise, and it seems almost like a miracle, we are here today with a hotel project cued up.”

Bateman enlisted his development and construction partners from projects in Alaska, John McGrew and Glen Gellert, and then signed on hotel management company Dora Hospitality of Indianapolis, who brought Marriott to the table. Vince Dora said being awarded a Fairfield franchise will really help boost the hotel economically, but there were other aspects of the project — like the historical significance of repurposing an old building and his family’s roots in southern Indiana — that made the project a good fit for his company.

“My grandpa actually started the hotel business for our family in Vincennes and he actually did a very similar project where he bought an old show horse stable and turned the horse stalls into guest rooms,” Dora laughed. “So when John and Glen and Ron reached out to us and asked if we were interested in helping them out with this project it really grabbed our attention right away. It allowed me to get back to the roots of what we do — a good hotel in a small community. ...” 

The list of people who made the project happen is long, but the name that resurfaced over and over was that of Welch, the Madison mayor who championed the project throughout his eight years on city council and two terms as mayor until his sudden passing earlier in the week, just three days before a groundbreaking that he had worked for and dreamed about for so long.

“He’d met with previous owners who’d tried to make a hotel project work but the timing wasn’t right. He talked with other developers and architects who said the only project that would work in the building was subsidized housing,” Schell, the city’s planner and preservation coordinator said. “Through it all, Damon continued to press for the best project for this city — a hotel and meeting center. This amazing team came together two years ago and we made it happen. Without Damon’s leadership, passion and dedication this project would not have happened.”

“The Cotton Mill hotel project will go down in history as a testament to Mayor Damon Welch’s commitment and dedication to the city that he loved,” said acting Madison Mayor Dan Dattilo. “In fact, the project would not have happened if it wasn’t for Mayor Welch and his administration. It’s a perfect example of what happens when investors, government and city government work together.”

One of those working closely with Welsh was former Madison Community Relations Director Andrew Forrester, who resigned last week to take a job in the Governor’s Office. He said Welch’s insight and commitment and Bob Cook’s tenacity to find matching funding will finally make the project a reality.

“Mayor Welch liked to call this a game changer for Madison,” Forrester said. “He used that phrase innumerable times over the last few years. And it most certainly is. It’s a game changer for our riverfront, it’s a game changer for our tourism, a game changer for our economy and our downtown, a game changer for our festivals, a game changer for our gateway into the community and a game changer for our community’s self image to the rest of the region.

“Damon was so looking forward to this day and to the day that it opened to the public, which is why I know he’d want us here today turning dirt even as we mourn his passing,” Forrester added. “But the bottom line is that the future of Madison, the future of this neighborhood and the future of Madison residents who follow us will be bright thanks to this project and all those who have worked to get it to this day. Thank you very much. Let’s turn some dirt.”

When the time came to pick up shovels, one gold shovel stood untouched in memory and honor of Welch, whose funeral would be on Sunday. A moment of silence in his memory was also observed earlier.

“Today he would have been here smiling ear-to-ear because the Cotton Mill project was a project he’d worked on since he took office and now it is finally coming to fruition,” Schell said.

“From the moment Damon and Bob and I walked into City Hall in 2012, this project was been on our minds as it has been on the minds of most Madison residents for years,” Forrester said. “We were always trying to find a way to make it happen. Previous administrations, previous city councils, mayors and many community members have worked to find a way to make this happen but the timing was never right. I’m really proud to say that thanks to Bob Cooke, Nicole, our Stellar designation which was extremely important, Ron, the investors, Vince Dora, our elected officials and all of you here today the time is right for this project.”