The Governor’s Inn, a Research Triangle Park institution for four decades, prepares to turn out the lights

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comOctober 28, 2013 

The Governor’s Inn was built to help the Research Triangle Park grow, and now it will be torn down to help the park keep growing.

Like the park itself, the 200-room hotel known lately as the Radisson RTP was ahead of its time when it started. Then, time caught up.

If you were visiting IBM or Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) at RTP in the 1970s, you checked into the Governor’s Inn and a bellhop took your bags. The inn combined white-linen dining and the personal service of a good hotel with the low profile of a sprawling, two-story motor inn.

“A lot went on in that hotel over the last 40 years,” said Durham businessman Robb Teer, whose family built the inn and owned it until 1985. “A lot of deals were struck. A lot of companies were started.”

Now the private foundation that manages RTP is buying the inn and plans to raze it. The Research Triangle Foundation is still working out its plans to redevelop the 10-acre site and an adjoining 70-acre office park off Davis Drive between Interstate 40 and N.C. 54. Foundation officials envision a dense mix of taller buildings there for commercial, retail and residential use – perhaps including a hotel.

Where the map surrounding RTP today is crowded with a few dozen motels and conference hotels, in the early 1970s there were only pine trees. The closest competitor was the old Triangle Motel at RDU Airport.

For years, Research Triangle Park was the only place you could make local telephone calls to Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill – a feature that generated business for the pay phones in the Governor’s Inn lobby.

“We had the best relationships in the world with local sales folks, because they could stop in and call all their customers without having to pay for a toll call,” said Ron Hunter, the inn’s general manager since 1995. He started work there as a banquet waiter when it opened in 1972.

Even during RTP’s boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t easy for the hotel to make money in a neighborhood that shut down every weekend.

“My understanding was that it was a money loser for years on end,” said RTP architect John Atkins. “The Teers stuck with it, in the same vein that many business leaders were trying to help make the park a success.”

One businessman liked the Governor’s Inn so much that he made it his headquarters for three decades. Walter Davis, a North Carolina native who made his riches in the West Texas oilfields, came home to serve as a UNC-Chapel Hill trustee and later moved up to the UNC Board of Governors. He would become a powerful patron for political leaders, including Marc Basnight, the long-time Senate president pro tem.

“We knew Mr. Davis was in the building the first day he came,” Hunter said. “We were at that point a four-diamond restaurant with tuxedoed waiters, and he walked in and said, ‘I want a fried-egg sandwich.’ And he gave the waiter and the cook $100 for that fried-egg sandwich.’”

Even after he and his wife built a home in Chapel Hill, Davis dispensed political advice and ACC basketball tickets from the Lieutenant Governor’s Suite at the Governor’s Inn. He built a garage out back – now used as a hotel workers’ break room – for his Lexus.

As the hotel business changed and the area developed, Hunter began providing guests a free shuttle to the Streets at Southpoint mall.

“In today’s world, I clean up more Bojangle’s boxes and pizza boxes in our rooms than I do plates from our restaurant,” Hunter said.

The inn’s most recent owner, Mercantile Commerce Bank of Boca Raton, Fla., found it too expensive to keep up with newer hotels in the area.

“When I needed roofs, I needed seven,” Hunter said. “My colleagues just need one roof for their high-rise hotel. Everything is complicated by the design of the hotel and the fact that it is 41 years old.

“In the real world, how could I in good conscience fight to keep a 200-room hotel on a 10-acre plot in the middle of RTP? It just doesn’t economically make sense. It’s time to make a change,” Hunter said.

Former Raleigh Mayor Smedes York, a Research Triangle Foundation board member, agreed.

“This is a key location, and it would take so much reinvestment,” York said. “If there’s a hotel there, it might be better to just start fresh. We want retail, we want residential, we want a new focus on the park. We want you to come up Davis Drive and say, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’”

After the last overnight guests check out of their rooms on Nov. 17, the inn will close its doors. Hunter is trying to find other hotel jobs for his remaining 67 employees, and he said they are determined to “close out with class.”

“I see some checking the want ads, but so many of them haven’t even looked at what they’re going to do next,” Hunter said. “Because they want to finish out what they’re doing here. It’s become a labor of love.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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