SIOUX CITY | Iowa gaming regulators dashed Lew Weinberg's latest hopes of restoring the historic Warrior Hotel to its former grandeur.
Despite the setback, he hasn't given up saving the long-vacant downtown Sioux City structure, which has evaded the wrecking ball for decades.
"As long as I'm breathing," Weinberg said last week, "there's still a chance."
His investment company owns the Warrior and adjacent Davidson Building in the 500 block of Sixth Street. The massive, towering structures, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places, were the centerpiece of the proposed Warrior Casino & Hotel.
In a split vote April 18, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission awarded the state gaming license to a rival downtown project, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sioux City. Two other projects were considered.
The $122 million Warrior project, led by Ho-Chunk Inc., the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska's economic development corporation, would have included restoring the hotel's lobby and grand ballroom and converting the upper floors into 93 upscale hotel suites.
"This was the Warrior and Davidson's big chance," said Ho-Chunk CEO Lance Morgan, after the IRGC vote. Morgan said Ho-Chunk did not have any alternative plans for the structures, which Weinberg had pledged in exchange for a minority stake in the casino development.
Weinberg acknowledged the casino vote likely closes the door on returning the Warrior to its original use.
"The problem is, there just isn't anything around it, other than the Orpheum (Theatre) for the type of hotel you would put in there," he said. "I don't think you could justify the numbers and occupancy."
But he believes the 83-year-old structure could still be retrofitted for other potential uses, such as offices or housing.
After the IRGC vote, Weinberg reached out to local leaders for assistance in plotting a future course for the 11-story structure with more than 100,000 square feet of space.
Siouxland Chamber of Commerce President Chris McGowan said the local community has "done a commendable job over the last several years renovating and repurposing" historically-significant buildings" like the Warrior and Davidson. The latter, built in 1913, was Sioux City's first office building.
A study by the Washington, D.C.-based International Economic Development Council last year urged city officials to expand market-rate housing in the downtown area. It also suggested taking advantage of historic buildings.
Mayor Bob Scott said the Warrior could tap into a growing demand for housing downtown.
"I'd certainly like to see them do something with it," Scott said. "The building is still very solid."
For more than three decades, Weinberg has tried to breathe new life into the Warrior, which was once one of Sioux City's most elegant hotels. Built in 1930, the Art Deco-style hotel's famous guests included Babe Ruth and Robert F. Kennedy.
The brick exterior of the hotel features Terra Cotta ornamentation and flourishes like ornate buffalo heads.
The hotel later fell on hard times and closed in 1976. Since the late 1990s, the boarded up structure has been red-tagged by the city for building code violations.
The City Council could vote to raze it at any time. But city leaders have held off due to the building's historical significance and, perhaps more importantly, the hefty price of demolition, perhaps as much as $5 million.
"In the near short-term, I don't know where we'd get the money to do it," Scott said. "From a pure numbers standpoint, it would just be impossible for us."
A series of Weinberg-led proposals for the Warrior have come and gone in the last three decades. Prior to the casino, the most recent was a 2006 venture to convert the floors into dozens of apartments for low-income seniors. With proceeds of a $1 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, Weinberg gutted the interior. But the venture failed to advance due to inadequate financing.
Weinberg estimates today's cost to renovate the building at about $10 million. While he has ruled out trying to put together another low-income housing project, he is open to a wide range of other options, from turning the lower floors into offices for a large insurance firm to converting the upper floors into moderate-priced apartments.
"We're always the bridesmaid, not the bride," he said. "We'd really like to be in the winner's circle, and bring something to downtown."