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An elevator travels to the ground floor during the grand opening of the new downtown Westin Hotel on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The luxury hotel was developed by brothers Byron and Ken DeFoor.

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Westin hotel

If I had a dollar for the people who said, 'I feel like I'm in New York.'

Chattanooga's new Westin hotel, the centerpiece of an estimated $88 million in work bringing new life to a part of downtown the developers are calling the "West End," almost didn't happen.

The initial vision was to tear down the Gold Building, the 10-story office tower remade into the hotel, and turn the site into a parking lot, the developers said Thursday.

"We weren't downtown people," said businessman Ken DeFoor, who with brother Byron officially cut the ribbon on the new 260-room hotel at Pine Street and M.L. King Boulevard.

However, the Chattanooga men saved the iconic former BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters and pushed ahead with the luxury hotel along with plans for new nearby restaurants and commercial and meeting space.

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Bryon DeFoor told a crowd of people who turned out for the hotel's official debut that the brothers had to overcome a variety of hurdles to bring the project to fruition.

A decade ago, he recalled, he was on a cruise and in a jungle near Tahiti when he received a message about an emergency phone call for him. His brother wanted to know if they wanted to buy the Gold Building and he had only two days to let him know.

They could tear down the building and put about 600 parking spaces on the site, Byron DeFoor said his brother told him.

The two bought the building and were later convinced that they couldn't dismantle the tower designed by famed Atlanta architect John Portman because it was "a part of history," he said.

Following thoughts about refurbishing the building as office space, the DeFoor brothers learned that Portman had designed a Hyatt Regency hotel in Atlanta which had a similar footprint to the Gold Building. The Chattanooga structure could become a hotel, and the idea of the Westin was born.

But, the DeFoors had concerns about the size of the investment and the Great Recession hit. They nailed down financing from a couple of out-of-town banks and finally proceeded with construction.

The DeFoors said the project sprinted to completion.

"For 43 days, the hotel looked like an army of ants," Byron DeFoor quipped about the workers. "Miracles do happen."

Ken DeFoor said that workers put in some 40 18-hour days to finish the project, which he believes people like.

"If I had a dollar for the people who said, "'I feel like I'm in New York"' he said.

DeFoor said hotel bookings are "going well" and "on schedule" so far. The hotel's meeting space also is picking up speed, he said.

A block away, at Eighth and Chestnut streets, a new restaurant called Alimentari is slated to open next week, DeFoor said.

Byron DeFoor said that another space on Chestnut is to hold a clothing store. In a building at Pine and Eighth, another restaurant, Shula's 347, is expected to open in March.

In addition, some of the space above that restaurant which had been earlier identified as condominiums will be made into event space for use by the hotel, he said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke cited what he called the reinvigoration of that part of downtown by the two businessmen. He said the DeFoors "had the tenacity and vision to make it happen."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the repurposing of the building is "phenomenal for downtown."

Bob Doak, who heads the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, termed the Westin "a first-class property."

"Brand loyalty alone will drive demand," he said.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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