On Sunday, May 15th, exactly two weeks from Graduation Day 2016, the construction and development stages of the Town Center West Project will come to a close as the Inn at Swarthmore will officially begin hosting its first guests. This event will represent the culmination of a lengthy, and often contentious, process that has been in the works since October of 2011 when the college initially announced the project in its Strategic Directions Plan as the focal point of a wider initiative to develop campus infrastructure and revitalize Swarthmore Borough’s downtown. As the Inn, the Broad Table Tavern, and the Swarthmore Campus Community Store open their doors in the coming weeks, the economic impacts of their launch will be significant, bringing tax dollars, employment opportunities, and visitors to the borough, while adding another source of revenue to support the operations budget for the college. Nevertheless, some worry that these benefits will be unfairly distributed, creating spaces that are financially inaccessible to large swaths of would-be patrons.
“The intent of the project was to revitalize the borough’s downtown, provide an inn and restaurant to support the campus and community’s residents and visitors, and broaden the retail offerings on campus and in town through the development of our new expanded store,” explained Greg Brown, Vice President for Finance and Administration at the college. “We expect the facility to be self-supporting initially, and return a small profit margin in future years.”
Far and away, the most lucrative component of the Town Center West facility will be the inn, which utilizes the majority of the space in the new building. The inn features 40 guestrooms and suites, the signature Broad Table Tavern, and more than 3,500 square feet of private dining, meeting, and event spaces, which can be rented out or utilized by the college. All dining and event spaces will be located on the southern side of the ground floor of the facility, closer to the fieldhouse, while guestrooms will be located on the upper three floors.
Given the extensive logistical and personnel demands of running such a multidimensional facility, the college has contracted an independent hotel management firm, The Olympia Companies, which specializes in the operation of hotels serving college communities. Though the firm primarily focuses on franchised projects at larger research universities, it is also responsible for smaller, boutique hotels at some of the college’s peer institutions, including The Brunswick Hotel and Tavern at Bowdoin College and The Hotel at Oberlin at Oberlin College. With just 40 rooms, however, the Inn at Swarthmore is the smallest facility that The Olympia Companies has taken administrative ownership over to date.
“The Inn at Swarthmore is a…property with a strong sense of place connecting it to both the college and the borough,” explained Sara Masterson, Vice President of Hotel Management at The Olympia Companies. “Unique attributes include its architecture as a reflection of Town Center West, the integration of a community and college store, a commitment to student art with each guestroom featuring an individual piece produced by a student at Swarthmore College and public area art pieces commissioned by alumni of the college and sustainability through thoughtful design and construction.”
The central social space intended to bridge campus and borough in the new facility will be the inn’s signature bar and restaurant, the Broad Table Tavern. The tavern will be located at the southern tip of the inn, with entrances on both North Chester Road and Field House Lane, and the space will feature two fireplaces and a tented outdoor courtyard that will be open during the summer. The menu at the restaurant will be seasonally inspired and entirely “Farm to Table,” which, according to Masterson, is a symbol of the facility’s dedication to environmental sustainability.
“The concept of Broad Table Tavern carries that commitment into the dining areas by embracing locally sourced food and creating a comfortable environment for members of the community, college and Inn guests,” Masterson said.
Somewhat controversially, given the long-standing dry status of the borough, the tavern will also feature a large bar, serving beer, wine, and hard alcohol. This will make it the sole venue in the borough where alcohol can be legally purchased, the product of a recent successful appeal to the borough council to amend the town’s 1949 referendum prohibiting liquor sales in the borough.
“We envision that alcohol will be served primarily with meals, as well as special events hosted at the Inn,” Masterson explained.
Given the substantial amenities and the heavily stylized aesthetic of the venue, however, reserving accommodations at the inn is not cheap. While rates at the inn will vary based on time of year and demand, when The Phoenix inquired about the price of a room during Alumni Weekend, the estimated cost for a standard room at the Inn was $219 per night, excluding taxes and other fees, while a suite was $279. This makes the inn significantly more expensive than other lodging options in the area that many visitors to the college have used in the past, such as the Days Inn Springfield, the Courtyard Philadelphia Springfield, and the Alpenhof Bed and Breakfast.
According to Masterson, however, the financial benefits of the inn must be considered in tandem with the impact that the facility will have on the community.
“I think in this case, there is benefit to both. The college is gaining an amenity that provides overnight accommodations for parents, prospective students, alumni, visiting professors, etc. and enhances its ability to host conferences and other academic events by virtue of having comfortable guestrooms and well-appointed meeting spaces,” Masterson explained. “The community benefits in the same way with a new restaurant, event space, overnight rooms for visiting family and friends and a community store that is very convenient.”
Nevertheless, some worry that the cost of accommodations at the inn could be financially prohibitive for many of those for whom the inn is ostensibly designed, particularly parents and prospective students.
“As a student from a low-income family, I would never expect my parents to pay $250 for a one-night hotel stay just to be close to me on campus,” said Kimberly Rosa-Perez ’18. “It’s frustrating to see that Swarthmore is seeking to make that kind of money off of their rooms because it speaks to the kind of people that they’re hoping to attract: middle to upper middle income families. My wish is that they take into consideration families from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Romeo Luevano ’19, agreed.
“Coming from a low income family, I know my family could not afford that, plus airfare for each person that would be coming,” he explained. “Money is clearly in their sights. I think it is way too much.”
Rosa-Perez and Luevano’s critiques represent what is undoubtedly the catch-22 situation produced by using the hospitality industry, regardless of how minimally, as a means of raising revenue for the college. While higher room rates and a more pricey restaurant limit the demographic financially able to gain access to or benefit from the space, a more expensive facility will yield greater profits, thereby providing more support to the college’s operations budget.
“As is the case with other revenue sources in the college’s budget, any net profit from the Town Center West project will support the general needs of the college, helping us to contain the growth of tuition increases and maintain our deep commitment to need-based financial aid,” Brown explained. “We are confident that the facility will be popular, and that it should return a net profit to the college over time. The college’s approved budget for next year anticipates that the facility will be moderately successful in its first year of operations.”
At Bowdoin College, for example, the hotel and tavern managed by The Olympia Companies netted approximately $4.3 million in revenues in support of the college’s 2015-2016 budget, according to the institution’s Treasurer’s report for that year. This sum accounted for 3% of Bowdoin’s operations costs, reducing the institution’s need to dip into the endowment or raise tuition.
While the degree to which the Inn at Swarthmore will produce such resounding financial success remains unknown, the community impact that the facility will have on the area will undoubtedly be significant, given the several thousand additional visitors expected to shop, dine, and seek accommodation in the borough each year. Nonetheless, as evidenced by the $330 price tag rumored to have been attached to the inn’s sold out commencement weekend rooms, the socioeconomic diversity of these new patrons is likely to be somewhat limited.