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FORT WORTH - Owners of the historic Texas & Pacific Terminal building announced plans Wednesday to turn the art deco depot and office tower into a railroad-themed, four-star hotel with 327 rooms, an upscale diner and a vintage steam train stationed in the lobby.

Local real estate developers Ed Casebier and Tom Blanton have formed a partnership with Halden Conner, who purchased the building at 1600 Throckmorton St. in 1978, to form Renaissance Development Co. and oversee a $50 million renovation of the 1930s building that once was the headquarters of the Texas & Pacific Railroad.

Blanton said the renovation, which could be completed by early 2002, would help to revitalize the Lancaster Avenue corridor, would add a historic option for tourists, business travelers and convention-goers looking to stay near downtown, and would provide guests an easy access to the nearby Trinity Express' commuter rail stop opening in fall 2001.

"Two of the most romantic images of the West are the cowboys and the railroad," Blanton said. "Fort Worth already has the cowboys. We've had that one long under guard. We think if we have this hotel, we'll have the railroad to go along with it."

The hotel would be a train buff's heaven, with a railroad-themed gift shop; 12 1930s-era sleeper cars where guests could spend the night; and a full-size stationary train that will spout steam and fill the lobby area with recorded chugs and whistles.

Casebier said he is working to dig up a vintage T&P engine that derailed in Arlington's Village Creek in 1885. He estimated that renovating the engine would cost at least $1 million.

The developers said they plan to finance the project through personal investments, historic tax credits issued by the state and local property tax incentives.

City Councilwoman Wendy Davis, whose district includes the property, praised the plans, calling them an important step in the effort to turn Lancaster Avenue into one of the region's premier promenades.

"You can't bring a corridor back by just planting trees," she said. "You've got to bring vibrancy. You've got to bring people. This project does that."

Casebier said he has talked to major hotel chains, including Omni, Hilton and Hyatt, about managing the property and plans to announce an operator within 30 days. He expects rooms in the hotel to run about $135 a night.

The site is 2 blocks from the Fort Worth Convention Center and will be a stop on the Fort Worth Trolley system, which could carry guests to the Cultural District and the Stockyards.

Doug Harman, president of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the train theme could make the hotel a destination and set it apart in the downtown market, where hotel occupancy rates are in the range of 60 percent to 70 percent.

He said it is unclear what effect the hotel would have on the city's plans to build a large hotel adjacent to the convention center. The city is in the process of hiring a consultant to explore construction and management of a major convention hotel.

Casebier said the T&P project will compare with other former depots-turned-tourist-attractions such as St. Louis' Union Station and the Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn in Tennessee.

The owners said they plan to preserve the building's elaborate plaster ceilings and to restore the depot's vintage diner, which was used as a set in movies such as The Trip to Bountiful, and add a pastry and coffee shop in the area where cigars were once sold. The main lobby will be in an area known as the Colored Waiting Room in the days of segregation.

They said the hotel will have a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, a 200-space parking garage with valet parking, an indoor swimming pool, a health club and spa, and a display that traces the building's history through drawings, photographs and other memorabilia.

The T&P terminal closed March 22, 1967, with a final run from El Paso to Fort Worth, just before Fort Worth and Dallas joined efforts to finance Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Until a year ago, the regional offices of the Department of Housing and Urban Development occupied all of the 130,000 square feet on nine floors above the lobby. That agency relocated to Burnett Plaza on Cherry Street.

In 1999, an investment group headed by Blanton and Casebier bought the building from Conner, who retained an ownership interest. The Fort Worth Transportation Authority owns part of the building.

Transit officials spent $1.4 million to return the 5,400-square-foot lobby and a separate ladies waiting room to their 1931 grandeur. The authority rents out the space for receptions and parties for $1,250 a night and up.

Blanton, who also has holdings in other Texas markets and in Missouri, has been a real estate investor since the early 1980s. He is developing four projects in Fort Worth totaling 1,100 acres and 3,500 residential lots. In 1991, he formed Mesa Processing and in 1997 helped take U.S. Liquid public on the American Stock Exchange. He also exports feed ingredients for livestock and poultry to Mexico and Central America.

Casebier was formerly a vice president of Ray Hunt's Woodbine Development Corp. from 1979 to 1989, overseeing the company's downtown Fort Worth properties. He was a member of the group that redeveloped the Texas Hotel into the Hyatt Regency, now the Radisson. He also served as project manager for development of the 40-story Continental Plaza, now UPR Plaza. Most recently, he assisted Hall Financial Group with its Dallas development, including conversion of the historic downtown Kirby building to apartments.

Staff writer Kristin Sullivan contributed to this report.

Kathryn Hopper, (817) 390-7863 [email protected]

The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
Kathryn Hopper