Nearly two years after the city revoked his hotel operations permit and forced the relocation of more than 50 long-term residents at the Oasis Inn and Suites, Paul Holt is burning the ships.
“I’ve gone full Elon Musk,” said Holt, a 34-year-old serial entrepreneur who has owned the embattled property since 2013, when he bought it for $1.5 million at the age of 25.
“I’ve literally said, ‘OK, everything’s just gonna ride or die on this thing.’”
So in the 20 months since city inspectors ordered the hotel closed — citing bug infestations, scattered pet feces, inoperable fire alarms, water leaks, heating issues, doors that wouldn’t latch and a disproportionate number of police calls to the property at 5250 Cornhusker Highway — Holt has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours into face-lifting the northeast Lincoln hotel, a journey he has documented on YouTube.
Chad Blahak, Lincoln’s Building and Safety director, said the 2020 revocation was the only time in his memory the city had forced an operating hotel to close. Holt is now aiming to be the first operator to win that license back.
The St. Louis native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate is not scared, he said, but he is clear-eyed about how daunting the task ahead of him is and the future prospects of the business he has marketed as “The Ugly Motel.”
“If it’s a race between me and the city,” Holt said, “I will die.”
At public hearings in 2020, as the city weighed whether to move forward with the revocation, Holt argued that he had already fixed much of the property’s structural problems, but conceded the hotel needed “a lot of lipstick.”
But the calculus changed after the closure, and since too has Holt’s business plan.
His first order of business in the aftermath of the revocation was the renovation of the property’s annexed outbuilding, a detached structure to the north of the main hotel that used to house 55 additional hotel rooms.
Now, the structure is home to 28 apartment units that the city recently approved for occupancy, marking the clearing of the first hurdle in Holt’s larger race for the property’s redemption. He has future plans to build an additional apartment building on the property that would face Superior Street.
Holt contracted Concorde Property Management to run the affordable housing units — now called N52 Apartments — and has inked leases for 33% of the one-bedroom and studio apartments as he turns his attention to the property’s larger structure.
At the height of its popularity, the main building was an iconic hub of lodging and entertainment, once the home of Lincoln’s “Holidome” hotel-amusement park and featured in the 1993 film “Terms of Endearment.”
More recently, the property has become an item of Nebraskan nostalgia and a money pit for its 34-year-old owner.
“At this point it would have been cheaper to build new,” Holt said. “It really would have.”
Holt knows returning the hotel to its former glory — to once again be a destination, to compete with skyscraping hotels in downtown Lincoln — is a long shot. He is more focused on turning a profit by providing a suitable night’s or week’s stay for travelers who are not caught up in cosmetics, he said.
But even that goal, for now, remains strictly aspirational, according to the city.
“To our knowledge, he is not real close to being at a point where he’s gonna be able to open the main structure,” Blahak said.
Holt, though, is aiming to divide and conquer the former Holidome, which now flies the Travelodge flag as a part of the Wyndham hotel chain. His initial renovation efforts have focused on the building’s eastside exterior corridor, where he hopes to open 55 hotel rooms by June 1, pouring profits back into further renovations.
That goal may be a pipe dream.
“The city has not given any indication to the owner that it would entertain allowing a portion of the units in the main building to be approved for occupancy prior to all the building’s issues being resolved,” Blahak said, adding that none of the main structure’s rooms were fit for occupancy the last time city inspectors visited.
In all, the main structure that was once home to 55 interior rooms — which opened directly to an open-air entertainment center complete with a swimming pool, mini-golf course, ballroom and sauna — seems to be a relic of the past.
The swimming pool is empty and, for now, inoperable. The mini-golf course is in a state of disrepair. The ballroom serves as a staging area for the remodel. The sauna is a laundry room.
And the owner isn’t yet sure what he’s going to do with the massive space — a looming question that may intensify if the city does not permit Holt to operate the hotel’s exterior units without first solving its interior problems.
Still, Holt is at once defiant and proud.
He acknowledged the mistakes he has made in his ownership but lamented what he called political obstacles that have impeded the hotel’s progress. He has grudgingly become a student in hard-knock hotel economics. He has poured more than a million dollars into the property, he said, and expects a total renovation will cost a few million more.
But he has sold his family’s home in St. Louis to take up permanent residence in Lincoln, where he is going all-in on The Ugly Motel, in part, he said, because he’s the only one who will.
“Who else is gonna spend the money and not just run off with it?” he said.