Hilton’s impact on Camden is huge: ‘This changes the dynamic completely’

Cooper’s Ferry CEO feels first hotel in city in 50 years is next step in development of waterfront

When you are trying to recreate, revitalize, rebuild and rebrand a city, no detail is too small.

That’s why the Water Street Grill — the restaurant that complements the Hilton Garden Inn Camden Waterfront, the city’s first new hotel in 50 years — is being marketed as a restaurant unto itself.

“They separated the restaurant functionally to make it into a true restaurant and not a hotel restaurant,” Kris Kolluri explained. “The characteristics of a hotel restaurant is that it is for the guests that stay there. The characteristics of a true restaurant is that it invites and welcomes both residents and guests from outside the pool of guests that stay in the hotel.

“It’s just one reason why this is such an exciting proposition for us.”

The Hilton Garden Inn Camden Waterfront. (File photo)

Kolluri, the CEO of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, the organization that is overseeing the redevelopment and urban planning of the Camden Waterfront, said the importance of the Hilton cannot be overstated.

The hotel, which had its grand opening earlier this month, has been serving guests for nearly a week. The impact obviously is slowed — but not stopped — by the pandemic, Kolluri said.

“It begins to change the dynamics of Camden from a 9-to-5 city to a city where now there’s a hotel and a restaurant — because a successful city always manages to keep the people there beyond 5 o’clock,” he said.

Kolluri said Camden averaged approximately 3 million annual tourists visits pre-pandemic — with many folks going to the aquarium, the BB&T Music Pavilion or other spots on the waterfront.

“Not having a hotel made all those trips a day trip,” he said. “This changes the dynamic completely.”

Changing the dynamic is key. And it comes with concerns about gentrification. The idea, Kolluri said, is to make sure the hotel — and the waterfront — is a part of the city and a supporter of the city’s residents.

“We are very sensitive to the idea of gentrification,” he said. “We feel there are two groups of people that will benefit from a city that goes beyond 5 o’clock.

“One: Our residents, because small businesses, like restaurants and others, will begin to thrive.”

The hotel, in fact, has pledged that 40% of the jobs will go to city residents.

“Equally important,” Kolluri said, “is that it’s for the people who come and work here and stay here in the hotel. They, too, can eventually look and say, ‘Maybe I’ll live in the waterfront apartment, or maybe I’ll rent in a neighborhood that is up and coming.’

“The next step in that transition is people moving to the city. That’s how cities grow.”

The hotel will indeed be an anchor. Many of its 180 rooms provide a view of the waterfront, views many will see for the first time.

Kolluri said he’s eager to have those with plans in Philadelphia stay in Camden while they are in the area. When they do, they may get their first look at the new $6 million park that’s across from the hotel — or take a walk to the aquarium and the music venue. It sounds basic, but you have to come to a city once before you can be a return visitor.

Of course, these options are off the table during the pandemic. Kolluri, however, feels that only makes the case for Camden.

“This is a morale booster,” he said. “It’s amazing to have a developer and a hotel operator say that they believe in the city, that they see light at the end of the tunnel and that they want to be prepared in the middle of a pandemic, when businesses are struggling.

“Equally important, I think there’s a sense of community ownership. Because I think it gives a sense of place for a city like Camden. It put us on the map for different reasons.”

Which brings us back to the top. When you are undertaking a project like the Camden Waterfront — a project that is about so much more than buildings and businesses — you look for small signs of success along the way.

Kolluri got one when he posted news of the hotel’s opening on social media.

“Usually, there is some snide remark from somebody about something,” he said. “This is the only post we’ve ever posted where, unanimously, people were excited about it.”

One response meant more than all others.

“We had a Camden resident post that she’s going to spend New Year’s Eve at the hotel,” he said. “I said to myself: ‘This is our dream. This is what we live for.’ We have a resident who feels that this hotel is a place that she can feel comfortable going.”

Kolluri said the post captured the spirit of the city.

“There’s something almost poetic about how Camden deals with adversity,” he said. “Just when we think the city and the residents are or should be counted out, something like this happens and it absolutely reaffirms why this is the city invincible.”

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