A nine-story Renaissance Hotel on the outskirts of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs — once scheduled as the latest addition to billionaire John Q. Hammons' array of upscale properties — stands as testament to the uncertainty left by his death last week at age 94.
The hotel appears to be months away from completion. But it's missing windows and doors, and the interior is barren.
Hammons abandoned the 300-room hotel in 2009, just before his longtime personal secretary seized control of the company, replaced the executive board and put Hammons in a nursing home.
Control of the company has been in dispute ever since. John Q. Hammons Hotels, meanwhile, controls three of downtown Oklahoma City's full-service hotels, a sizable chunk of meetings booked at the Cox Convention Center, and large hotels in Norman and Tulsa.
Hammons died May 26 with no known heirs. The company's control remains contested in a Delaware court.
Those who knew Hammons note he ran much of the company's operations at an age when most CEOs are long past retirement. Mark Grimes, Flintco's Oklahoma City division president, met Hammons at the start of a long and happy relationship with the construction of downtown's Renaissance Hotel.
Grimes observed a man who obsessively oversaw details of each hotel, almost always meeting at the same reserved back table at his University Plaza hotel in Springfield, Mo., where he had lunch daily.
“He was a control freak,” Grimes said. “I could go to lunch with him in Springfield, and he had that table in the back. And every day I met him, he came with a set of plans under his arms. He couldn't take lunch without working.”
Former Oklahoma City mayors Ron Norick and Kirk Humphreys and former city managers Don Bown and Glenn Deck all dealt with a hotelier who revived the downtown hotel market.
Downtown was on the ropes when Norick, on the heels of persuading voters to approve the MAPS downtown improvements initiative, interested Hammons in building a full-service hotel in connection with expanding and upgrading the Myriad Convention Center.
When Humphreys succeeded Norick in 1998, the deal was still not done — and Hammons was playing with the idea of going with an Embassy Suites instead of the more upscale Renaissance flag.
Hammons told Humphreys the deal wouldn't work because of increased costs associated with building a kitchen large enough to service the hotel and expanded convention space.
“So we had to pay more for the kitchen to get the deal done,” Humphreys said. “We had to negotiate more. … I thought he was great. He was charming. I had breakfast with him, and he gave me his book, talked about his worth. He was a seat-of-his-pants operator, and he did what he wanted.”
That also meant disregarding more cautious executives and investors.
“You really got the deal done with him, not the executives,” Humphreys said. “He was always here when we met.”
Stock prices for Hammons Hotels, then a public company, were under pressure. Hammons executives wanted him to scale back development and sales.
“He was visceral about doing the project,” Humphreys said. “If he wanted to do it, he found a way.”
After striking a contract with Flintco to build the Renaissance in Oklahoma City, that meant building several stories of the hotel without closing on the land purchase with the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority. “He did everything on a handshake,” Humphreys said.
Hammons is seen by some as one of the last vestiges of an era of larger-than-life hotel magnates that included Conrad Hilton and John Marriott. Instead of delegating authority, he manned the negotiating table to deal with cities, developers and contractors as he built his empire.
For companies such as Tulsa-based Flintco, the arrangements worked out well. After building the Renaissance Hotel in Oklahoma City in 1998, the contractor was hired by Hammons to build nine other hotels.
Hammons was a Joplin, Mo., boy who grew up during the darkest years of the Great Depression. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he saw the influx of soldiers returning home after World War II and sought to make his fortune in residential real estate.
In 1958 he switched his focus to hotels, joining with Roy E. Winegardner to buy his first 10 Holiday Inn Franchises from founder Kemmons Wilson.
By the late 1960s, Hammons built nearly three dozen Holiday Inns. He created his own company in 1969 and went on another hotel building spree that was ongoing as he got his start in Oklahoma City.
When he arrived in Oklahoma City, he encountered an old Missouri friend — Bown — and was persuaded that Oklahoma City was on the verge of a dramatic transformation.
By the mid-1990s, Hammons had a preference for his hotels — smaller markets, and designs that included large atriums where guests, especially women, could feel safe taking elevators up to their rooms.
At that time, he was the country's largest independent hotel operator.
Tom Maxwell, chief executive officer of Flintco, said the Renaissance Hotel in Oklahoma City prompted Hammons to take his company private. Hammons didn't agree with the publicly held company's board that he needed to slow down hotel development. The answer, Maxwell said, was to go private.
“He knew what he liked. He pushed the things he thought were right, and was fearless in doing it,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell almost always met Hammons at the reserved table at the University Plaza. They met there repeatedly over a decade as Flintco built 10 hotels — about a third of the projects built in Hammons' final years.
“He had a ... memory that was just amazing,” Maxwell said. “You could talk to him about any city in the country and he could tell you the location of the expressways, the traffic counts, and how many hotels were nearby.”
All went well, until Flintco began construction in 2008 on the Colorado Springs Renaissance Hotel. Maxwell recalls the project came to a halt when lenders who enjoyed Hammons' usual handshake trust backed out as the economy nose-dived.
“It wasn't unusual for him and us to start before he had financing all together,” Maxwell said. “He would pay us out of his own funds.”
Construction stopped on the Colorado Springs hotel in October 2009. Soon after, Hammons underwent heart surgery and gave his power of attorney to longtime personal assistant Jacqueline Dowdy.
After the surgery, Maxwell said, Hammons was never quite the same. And for the first time in his 50-year career as a hotelier, he was unable to complete construction of a hotel.
“It was a heartbreaker for him,” Maxwell said. “Through that whole thing, he was a complete gentleman. I spent a lot of time with him and with different lenders. The timing of it was atrocious.”
Hammons' health rapidly declined. In October 2010, Dowdy took control of the company as Hammons was placed in a Springfield nursing home. A lawsuit filed by longtime friends alleged Dowdy gutted the company's executive ranks and blocked acquaintances from visiting Hammons.
Investors in John Q. Hammons Hotels then filed lawsuit, accusing Dowdy of violating contracts and inappropriately seizing control of the company.
Neither Dowdy, officials with Hammons Hotels nor the plaintiffs, Atrium Hotels, returned calls to The Oklahoman.
Local probate attorneys contacted by The Oklahoman suggest the investors' stance may be stronger following Hammons' death because in Missouri, one's power of attorney expires once the person who gave that power dies.
Business as usual
Maxwell has nothing but fond memories of Hammons. The contractor took possession of the Colorado Springs hotel when it went into foreclosure; it's now under contract with a developer set to resume construction.
Michael Carrier, Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau president, has high regard for Hammons' local management team.
“I have not seen a change in how they operate the last several years,” he said. “For all practical purposes as it appears to us ... it has been business as usual. They still made every effort to provide the quality of service that Mr. Hammons expected.”
But Carrier is closely watching the conflict in Springfield. Hammons Hotels, he said, is Oklahoma City's primary partner in the downtown hotel and convention business.
“I think you always have to be concerned when there is a situation of this nature,” Carrier said. “While he was alive, there was always a great deal of respect for how he wanted things done. Hopefully we'll continue to see things done that way — in a quality manner.”