Marty Matfess, Chief Operating Officer of SIG Management, responds after his property is branded a ‘Homeless Hotel’ by Richmond County Commission.
As the person who converted it from the Bankrupt “Augusta Towers Hotel” to one of the premier full service hotels in the CSRA, you can believe I never thought I’d have to type that sentence out. Go ahead and read it twice, because I’ve said it to at least 50 people in the last week.
A week ago there was a news story stating that my hotel in West Augusta had plans to begin accepting Augusta’s homeless en masse. For me, hearing a news story like that was largely akin to hearing “Dad, I totaled the car” or “Dad, I’m joining a cult”. So I did the only logical thing and spoke with the salesperson who had been communicating with Augusta Housing and Community Development.
It was a simple miscommunication, at least that is what I was told.
Let me tell you all a small secret: Sometimes when police or fire or a medical professional or someone similar needs to find someone a place to stay in the middle of the night, we get a phone call. We do it quietly, without fanfare, and we do it gladly because we are part of the community, and that’s what neighbors do for neighbors.
So all that we were talking about was occasional short term help for a very specific situation. What we could do for Housing and Community Development (HCD) would best be described as a pointed dart; what was described to the media was a shotgun blast. I insisted my salesperson speak to the HCD rep, and explain we would not be opening our doors to Augusta’s homeless, but we would continue to step up to the plate when we needed to be a good neighbor.
What came back on an April 9th email from HCD was a response that claimed to understand our concerns, but also seemed to miss the mark on what we were willing to do. I think the kids today would call it “not being able to read the room”. So I sent back a reply that was succinct, to the point, pointed, and not altogether kind. It was sent to 3 employees of Housing and Community Development, the only three we had been speaking to. Hearing no response, I just assumed my email had in fact “Nipped it in the bud”.
The email was long, but for a shortened version of the email, you need only to read the first sentence of this story.
So you can imagine the pain, exhaustion, and involuntary eye twitch that occurred when I took in the commission meeting yesterday, April 14. Because along with saying the word Doubletree at least 25 times, (and the word Homeless an equal amount), it became clear to me that the email I had sent to the Housing and Developments team had not actually been shared with the director, Hawthorne Welcher. Otherwise, Hawthorne never would have stated to the commission that Doubletree would provide transportation, as my April 9 email had stated plainly we would not.
He also would not have stated that we would not hold Augusta-Richmond County responsible for any damages, because I stated plainly in the same email that I expect any organization that places people in my hotels to be responsible for their actions. Mr. Welcher stated to the commission we would waive incidental fees, something we would never do, and never agreed to do. The email I sent made it clear we would continue to be good neighbors for someone in temporary need (See Dart metaphor above), but we would not be the hotel where homeless people are sent for any length of time (See shotgun blast metaphor above).
The email also explained that we had no food and beverage services available, nor are there any restaurants in easy walking distance, no food markets within an easy walk, no cooking facilities in our rooms, and that the Doubletree was not ….(for the balance of this sentence, refer to sentence 1).
I have to believe that Hawthorne never saw that email, because so much of what he presented to the Augusta Commission yesterday ran directly against what I had stated plainly.
The commission meeting was not quite over when I fired off a reasonably short email to my contacts within HCD. It started out the same way this story began, and ended with a very clear direction that we’d not be working with them in any capacity. Not even the good neighbor stuff we used to do.
Although my April 9 email got no response, my April 14 4:00PM email got one immediately. And on a very tense conference call at 5:00PM, I accepted at face value that Mr. Welcher had not been privy to my email of April 9. I don’t know why his team chose not to share it, and chose not to respond to me, but as I rattled off discrepancies between what he had stated to the commission and what I had written, it was clear we were on very different wavelengths.
We are no longer working together in any fashion, and he has told me that he has other hotels that are willing to work within the parameters he outlined to the commission.
This isn’t a decision we make lightly. I applaud the efforts of Housing and Community Development as well as the Augusta Commission to address the needs of our homeless population. Before Covid-19 ruined everything the Doubletree Hotel employed over 100 people in the region, and we’ve faithfully served the region for a dozen years in providing jobs, career advancement opportunities, and exceptional service to our guests.
We have also worked with many of the organizations that HCD serves in a variety of manners. The Doubletree Augusta recently invested another $3million dollars in a renovation finished last year, and hope to serve the community for years to come. And despite the largest obstacle we as an industry has ever had to overcome, our plan is to persevere and succeed.
The author Marty Matfess is the Chief Operating Officer of SIG Management, and oversees the operations of the Doubletree Hotel and 10 other hotels in the CSRA.