He may have been on a different continent, but Bob Sheckler was in the right place at the right time to snatch up a roughly $45 million hotel development project that could have gone to Tacoma.
“I still can’t believe it to this day that actually happened,” said Sheckler, who is still a Des Moines city council member. “It couldn’t have come off better if it was planned. That’s how life is sometimes, things just fall in your lap.”
While in China to develop a sister city relationship, Sheckler took advantage of an invite to meet Chun Yang, the owner of the hotel where he was staying.
“He said he was going to build a hotel in Tacoma or Des Moines, which piqued my interest, of course,” Sheckler recalled of his first meeting with Yang. “To make a long story short, I convinced him that Des Moines would be the way to go primarily because of the location.”
The Artemis Hotel Project is already beginning to take shape along Pacific Highway South in the South King County city. However, it won’t likely be opening until about 2015, when Chambers Bay hosts the U.S. Open golf tourney.
“That’s very much our target date, for welcoming those golfers,” said Albert Sze of Yareton Investment Fund LLC.
Sze has been using the employment-based preference immigrant visa category, known as EB-5, to attract Chinese investors to join Yang in funding the Artemis.
“That’s the reason why we are having the investment,” said Sze.
Through the EB-5 program, qualified foreigners invest in a business that will benefit the U.S. economy and create or save at least 10 full-time jobs. In return, they gain a preferential place in the immigration line leading to U.S. residency. Sze’s company formed the Yareton Hotel Investment Funds Regional Center, but has not finalized how many investors will be involved in this hotel project.
Yang is the majority investor of the Artemis and is in the process of taking advantage of the EB-5 program.
“It’s gone through years of process,” Sze said. “We have some support through the city and we have very good support from state representatives.”
Sze agreed that it was the random meeting of Yang and Sheckler that allowed Des Moines to edge past Tacoma as the location where the company would first break ground.
He said what seemed to seal the deal for Yang wasn’t necessarily the views of the mountains and the Puget Sound, but rather the proximity that the Highway 99 location had to Sea-Tac Airport.
Artemis Hotel Group does own two other sites including property in Tacoma and Seattle, but the convenience of being just a couple of miles from an international airport was too much for the company to pass by. Sze said there are plans, however, to develop the other Puget Sound sites at a later time.
The reason the hotel group wanted to be close to SeaTac is that it’s specifically targeting Chinese tourists. Yes, Sze believes the Artemis will attract tourists because of its unique features, but he believes the real bread-and-butter customers of the hotel will be visitors from China.
“We are looking forward to it being successful,” said Sze. “It’s the first hotel for Mr. Yang in the Northwest, so it has to be a very successful one.”
There is growing evidence that this strategy of targeting the Chinese tourism market may prove successful.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration and the Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, the number of visitors from China has increased substantially and will continue to rise. From 2010 to 2011, the number of Chinese visitors increased 36 percent. Forecasters expect that to jump another 35 percent by the end of 2012 and 26 percent more in 2013.
Airlines at SeaTac are making moves to grab more of these travelers. For example, Delta announced last month it would be offering daily nonstop service between Seattle and Shanghai beginning June 17, 2013.
But Sheckler believes it wasn’t his words during that chance meeting in China or statistical projections like these that persuaded Yang the City of Des Moines was the right place to launch his hotel group in the Northwest.
“We just hit it off. It’s kind of the way it works. If they like you, you just get their business. If they don’t, forget it,” he said. “It all comes down to relationships and how people relate to one another.”
The Artemis Hotel has features that Sze said Chinese travelers are usually find attractive. For example, the approximately 295,000 square-foot building will have a 1930s Art Deco style and the banquet room was designed with a Shanghai Bund scheme.
Plans for the hotel, as of the end of last month, include 240 rooms, gambling operations, a cafe, a bar and two restaurants, including one with authentic Chinese cuisine.
“Poker card rooms in our facility, that will be a major attraction to our Asian guests,” Sze said.
Overall, he estimates the hotel will hire about 170 employees.
Besides the economic impact of having more jobs in Des Moines, Sheckler said this project is poised to help Des Moines’ tourism and development activity.
“Things like this have what is called a ‘domino effect,’ ” he said. “If you put a four star hotel in an area like that, all of a sudden other properties get bought up.”
And some City of Destiny boosters will lament, it could have been there.