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Hotel Settles, built by one oil boom, could flourish in another

Written by , published January 29, 2013

With the recent reopening of the Hotel Settles in Big Spring, I couldn’t help but wonder about the viability of such a hotel in the remote West Texas town.

Last week, I wrote about the renovation of the 82-year-old Art Deco hotel, which had been sitting vacant for 30 years until the completion of a six-year restoration project in December.

It’s a remarkable resurrection tale—from the hotel’s storied past, to its decay into dilapidation, to Brint Ryan’s $30 million redevelopment project, carefully focused on historical detail.

I’m definitely looking forward to a visit, but will interested travelers like me sustain the venture?

Big Spring—on Interstate 20 between Midland and Abilene—has a population of about 22,500. Tourism attractions include the city’s 400-acre Comanche Trail Park, the Heritage Museum, the Hangar 25 Air Museum, and Big Spring State Park.

Ryan says the hotel is counting on tourism traffic, but not exclusively.

“We hope first and foremost that we pick up a lot of the destination business—people who want to come and see something unique,” he says.

In addition, the hotel expects to draw business related to local institutions such as the Veterans Administration Hospital, the Alone USA petroleum refinery, and the local prison industry (the Federal Correctional Institution and the GEO Group’s four private prisons house about 5,500 inmates).

Ryan also notes the regional market—folks from places like Midland and Odessa who want to visit the hotel’s amenities, such as the Settles Grill.

“We think there are multiple different revenue streams, and the hotel will cater to different clientele,” he says.

Another likely contributor to business activity at the Hotel Settles is the natural resource that enabled Howard County rancher W.R. Settles to build the hotel in the first place, back in the 1920s: Oil.

Big Spring sits on the western side of the Cline Shale, a geologic formation that by some estimates contains as much as 30 billion barrels of recoverable oil—more than the prolific Bakken Formation of North Dakota or the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas.

The Cline play is in its infancy, but energy development activity is gaining steam in Big Spring. Big Spring sales tax revenue was a record high last year, and this year is running 25 percent ahead of that, Mayor Tommy Duncan says.

When it comes to hotels, the city’s lodging tax revenue more than doubled from $495,000 in fiscal year 2010 to $1.145 million in fiscal 2012, says Debbie Wegman, coordinator of the Big Spring Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Duncan says the oil boom will be important to the Hotel Settles’ success.

“There’s a lot of activity and a lot of growth that will support it,” he says. “I’m not an economist, and it would be hard for me to predict what would happen without the oil boom. I believe at this point that it will support it, and I’m hopeful that in addition to the oil industry, we’ll be able to attract … some conventions and those types of things” to the Settles.

Wegman says the Hotel Settles is important to the revitalization of Big Spring’s downtown, which has seen new retailers setting up shop in recent months. The city is also investing more than $1 million to spruce up its Big Spring Municipal Auditorium, a 1930s historic theater downtown.

“It’s a three-year phased project,” she says. “And it’s going to be awesome.”

The Hotel Settles provides Big Spring with a comprehensive meeting facility with lodging, a restaurant, and meeting rooms, she says.

“It’s going to be just a real boom for people to come and visit,” Wegman says. “It’s not only going to be great for tourism, it’ll be a great place for meetings and conventions, and it’s real excitement for people in our community also. It’s a nice restaurant to go to.”

Mayor Duncan seconds that notion. He was impressed by a recent dinner at the Settles Grill.

“They asked for comments and recommendations,” Duncan recalls. “My wife and I and our two guests really enjoyed our meal and had no recommendations other than, ‘More of the same.’”

It all sounds promising to me, and I plan to be among the destination travelers checking into the Settles for a stay that’s rich in West Texas history and ambience.

Hopefully the resurrection of the Hotel Settles will be one of those serendipitous occasions where the right people, the right project, and the right economic climate coincide to create a lasting success story.

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Photos by Mark Knight/Courtesy of Hotel Settles.

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