DEVENS — A red-velvet ribbon was sliced in half by a giant pair of scissors, ceremoniously marking the official grand opening of the 118-room Devens Hilton Garden Inn on Dec. 7.
As guests mingled in the lobby, the hotel had already opened for business a month earlier and was more than 50 percent booked that evening.
Hotel General Manager John Mehlmann gathered his team in the lobby around a giant Christmas tree adorned with ornaments, red poinsettia blooms and topped with a big red bow. Riding around the mid section of the Christmas tree was a model train on a circle of track.
State Rep. Sheila Harrington sent a legislative aide to read aloud a proclamation from the House of Representatives, lauding Westford developer Robert Walker on the newest addition to his 26-acre Devens Common retail and service center and thanking him for the resulting jobs produced.
Devens Enterprise Commission Chairman William Marshall is the president of North Middlesex Savings Bank. He said the great turnout was a “testament to the area that we have so many interested parties.” He said the commission was “committed to using our powers to foster the (Devens) Reuse Plan. We welcome them to Devens.”
Walker said there was a clear need for a second hotel in Devens Common even before his company finished construction on the first hotel in the complex — the 121-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott.
“We believed in the area way back when. We knew there’d be another hotel here,” said Walker. “And that’s why we built the (adjoining Devens Common) conference center the way we did and the size we did.”
The new Hilton Garden Inn is “more intimate and a smaller venue. It’s more in line with smaller business and social functions,” said Walker. The meeting and function space at the Devens Common Conference Center is much larger. “They don’t compete with each other. They complement each other.”
Walker purchased the Devens Common lands in 2003. The Marriott was built in 2005. Walker said it quickly filled within its first three months in operation. “We saw a point where the occupancy was well into the 70s and approaching 80 percent occupancy.”
Passersby may have noticed that the concrete pad and elevator shaft was built on the site in 2009 before the project was mothballed
Walker said the initial financing plan faltered. “It kind of slowed down until we could resource some financing. We had a financing package already approved but unfortunately the Federal Reserve and FDIC told banks to slow down their lending. The financial markets were in peril and we stopped construction.”
The concrete skeleton weathered last winter without flesh to cover its exposed bones. But in late 2010, Walker said he was able to re-secure financing, and construction work began anew in March.
Walker said a Littleton factory assembled the bathrooms. “They were all wallpapered and painted. Then we shipped those complete and lifted those in with a crane, screwed them down and kept the doors locked until we were ready to open.”
Every detail was assembled and already in place — all the way down to the artwork framed and hung on the bathroom walls. “It certainly aided in our ability to open the hotel in literally seven months time. It made sense to us.”
The project stalled due to financing but Walker said one rolls with the punches. “That’s just what I do. That’s just my personality. I keep marching forward. I go after a particular idea aggressively.”
“It certainly wasn’t an easy task but we felt very confident it would be a great asset to ourselves, the Devens community and attract small businesses to Devens Common.
“More brings more. More residents means more people. More people means more hotels, more Dunkin’ Donuts, gas stations. That’s what business is all about,” said Walker
Walker is not shy about advocating for the Vicksburg Square 246-unit apartment complex proposed by Boston-based Trinity Financial. The estimated 600 tenants would have a one-mile walk to Devens Common, which serves currently as the only developed retail center within the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone.
“It’s important to the whole region, certainly not just to me,” said Walker. “It’s important for the whole concept of the housing and Devens as a community and workforce housing and different variations of housing. I think it’s a no brainer, really.”
Regarding push-back registering from Ayer and Harvard on the proposal, Walker said, “I don’t know. I have a little different take on it. I think the communities aren’t looking at it the right way. More brings more. It’s more sustainable and more viable as a community.”
Walker also supports the notion of Devens as its own community — the 352nd community in the state.
Back at Devens Common, Walker said there’s three pads left to complete in his owned and operated complex. There’s one pad by the Devens Grill, which provides 38,000 square feet of mixed retail and office space. A second is between the new Hilton and the MassDevelopment office space for an additional 30,000 square feet of office space. And a third pad between the Hilton and the existing strip mall providing 45,000 square feet of space (5,000 for retail and 40,000 for a grocery store).