Why is this building still empty?

DANIEL R. DOHERTY | DAILY KENT STATER The Kent Hotel, on the corner of South Depeyster and East Main streets, has been empty for most of the last 30 years. Its redevelopment depends on the cooperation of the owner, the city and potential investors. Daniel

Credit: DKS Editors

It could be the sharpest apartments above the most delicious restaurant in Kent. But right now it’s the rotting building on the corner of Depeyster and Main.

Many of the windows that aren’t boarded up have holes punched through them. Some windows are entirely missing. And if you get too close to the east wall, the Kent Hotel smells a little moldy.

The building, formerly a hotel, is the only five-story structure in downtown Kent, and it’s the easiest building to miss. Most of it has been vacant for 24 of the last 30 years.

But you can imagine the way it used to be.

The broad stoop climbs to a wide door that was probably grand in 1920 when the Franklin Hotel (its first of many names) was built. The Kent Tribune, the old local paper, called it “the fine new hostelry of which Kent people are so proud” after its grand opening. But all its 1920s grandeur is gone.

Its front door is sealed and boarded like the windows.

And it will stay sealed – at least as long as its owner and the city of Kent remain in a legal tug-of-war that’s been going on for the last 10 years.

“It’s a very convoluted story and requires a lot of digging to get the information,” said Henry Halem, a retired Kent State professor and now volunteer at the Kent Historical Society. “And the information you’re liable to get is probably not going to be accurate from one person to another.”

But there are some undisputed nuts and bolts to the story.

In 1999, an overhang fell off the building at 176 E. Main St. and onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, it was in the middle of the night, and no one was around. To address the safety hazard, the city went to court to order that the owner, Joseph Bujack, restore the building to government codes.

After three years, Bujack still hadn’t fulfilled the order of the Portage County Court of Common Pleas, so Judge Joseph Kainrad held him in contempt of court and imposed a $1,000-per-day fine until a specified date or until the building was razed.

Neither Kent Law Director James Silver nor Community Development Director Gary Locke, whose department oversees building inspections, responded to questions about the Kent Hotel because the litigation is ongoing.

Ward 3 Councilman Wayne Wilson said the fines and the court orders weren’t an attempt by the city to acquire the building. The Council and city administrators didn’t even necessarily want it demolished, though Wilson says he’s always suggested it be torn down.

“It’s an eye-sore, and it’s a safety hazard downtown,” he said. “The intent of the fines was meant to be an encouragement by the court to get the guy to fix the building to make it comply (with safety codes).”

Dan Smith, Kent’s economic development director, said the last inspection of the Kent Hotel by the city was in 2006. At that time, the building didn’t have any major structural problems, but “it’s nowhere near up to any of the codes.”

It has potential, though. At least Gregory Vilk says it does.

Vilk is the managing partner of Kent LLC, which currently owns the building. Over the last two years, he said he has put “well into six figures” into hiring a private engineering firm to look at the building, cleaning out the interior, upgrading the roof and other improvements.

The basement, first and part of the second floor are “perfect for commercial use, which could be anything from retail to restaurants,” Vilk said. The other part of the second floor and the third floor could be office space, and Vilk sees the top two floors as residential.

“You need to have housing,” he said. “You need to have a neighborhood downtown.”

But there won’t be a neighborhood or anything else until the city’s liens on the property are removed. The liens are a court-imposed security on the outstanding fines on the building.

A Nov. 20 court date may sort out a lot of this. On that day, the court will decide whether the city has the right to the seven-year-old fines – which at this point are worth about $428,000 – originally imposed on Bujack.

Here’s the convoluted part that Halem of the Historical Society was talking about:

Vilk was Bujack’s tenant in the Kent Hotel for more than five years, starting in the mid-’90s. He owned a couple restaurants in the basement and the first floor. In 2004, Vilk took ownership of the building after winning it in an outside settlement, the circumstances of which he would not discuss.

When he acquired the building, he also acquired the baggage, including the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and the responsibility of bringing the building to code.

Vilk has made efforts to improve the building. But there’s still question about the outstanding fines: No one knows who’s supposed to receive them.

Sitting Judge Laurie J. Pittman, of the Portage County Court of Common Pleas, didn’t return a message left in her office. Joseph Kainrad, the common pleas judge who ruled in the original 1999 case, said the fines should have gone to the county.

But they don’t have to go to the county, and now the city is trying to get them.

“The court can redirect those fines to the appropriate party in a civil action,” he said. “And since the city is carrying the burden on the thing and bringing the action with respect to the fines, if they’re going to get anything (any money), it should go to the city.”

So the city’s argument goes. Vilk and company claim otherwise.

“The city has no right or authority to receive proceeds of any fines issued pursuant the contempt orders,” Vilk’s attorney wrote in the defense’s most recent opposition.

Meanwhile, the liens on Kent LLC prevent any development.

Vilk said there have been at least four attempts to have an investor take on the building. All have fallen through.

Ron Burbick, president of RLB Phoenix Properties – which created Acorn Alley right next to the Kent Hotel – wouldn’t comment on whether he had ever been interested in the building.

Vilk said he has the means to redevelop it but won’t. “We made the conscious decision to say, ‘We’re moving on.'” He wants to wash his hands of the situation.

So he put it up for sale earlier this year. He wouldn’t say what he’s asking for it.

“We have a building with no windows in it that’s an incredible eye-sore, that has been condemned since the late ’70s in the upper floors of it, sitting next to a $6.5 million revitalization project,” Smith said. “I think there’s a general sentiment around the entire community that it’s time to address the old hotel.”

Contact public affairs reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].

Editor’s note: This article has been changed from its original version to correct an error that occurred in the reporting process.