Sunday, September 14, 2003

'Man who started it' has hope

Knack for tourism invigorated N. Ky., but Drawbridge suffered

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Jerry Deters (center) talks with Damon Young (left) and Samual Peweardy at the Drawbridge.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
FORT MITCHELL - His vision for Northern Kentucky was on target. His determination unmatched.

His energy fueled others - and ironically, led to his prize hotel's financial uncertainty and, even sooner, an unraveling of a personal dream.

Ask the insiders in development and business: Nobody has ever been better at luring tourists to Northern Kentucky than Jerry Deters. Yet the 75-year-oldfounder, owner and soul of the Drawbridge Innfinds his Fort Mitchell hotel and regional landmark in a once unthinkable position: Fighting for survival.

Since opening his 157-room hotel in 1970 the diminutive, gravelly-voiced Deters repeatedly called on his political clout, business contacts, determination and vision to lay the groundwork for what has become Northern Kentucky's $600 million-a-year tourism industry.

"Jerry Deters was the man who started it all," said Tommy Behle, owner of Tommy's restaurant in Fort Mitchell.

"He saw the potential not just for the Buttermilk area but for all of Northern Kentucky when it came to tourism and the hospitality industry."

The tourists and conventioneers Deters worked doggedly for years to attract are stampeding to Northern Kentucky. But not enough of them are staying with him.

The 485-room Drawbridge - host to countless guests, conventions, weddings, meetings, banquets and parties during its 33 years - is seeking bankruptcy protection from creditors.

Speaking recently from the hotel's suite of offices, Deters expressed concern about the perception that the hotel is failing and will go out of business.

"We'll be here, for the employees, for the people who stay with us and for the people who have booked rooms, meetings and conventions with us," Deters said.

While the hotel was being built, Deters helped convince state legislators to let Northern Kentucky form a convention and visitors bureau that could levy a sales tax on hotel rooms, and use the money to market the region.

"That was big because it gave us a way to let people know about Northern Kentucky, and it brought people here," he said.

As tourism grew, so did business at the Drawbridge. A late 1970s expansion added a convention center and a number of smaller meeting rooms.

Keith Hill grew up in Florence and worked setting up banquet halls while studying law enforcement at Northern Kentucky University and Eastern Kentucky University in the late 1970s and early '80s.

"Growing up, the Drawbridge was the place to go," said Hill, 43, now Campbell County's assistant police chief. "If you went there for something, you knew it was for something special."

As one of Deters' former employees, Hill has nothing but praise for the man.

"He worked around my schedule the whole time I was in school and even let me work weekends when I came home from Eastern," Hill said. "He was very good to me. And boy, were we busy back then. Some days we would have 14 or 15 meetings during the day to set up and just as many dinners at night."

Deters keeps a scrapbook, thick with memories, within reach. A newspaper headline from 1980 declares that the Drawbridge had "succeeded Beverly Hills as the meeting place in Northern Kentucky," in reference to the opulent supper club where 165 people died in a 1977 fire.

Growth at the Drawbridge continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s. More rooms were added. Restaurants and a nightclub were expanded. In one of Deters' most ambitious plays, he used ground adjacent to the hotel to build the massive Oldenburg microbrewery. Guests could view the beer-brewing process, watch a German-themed show in the Great Hall or dine at the restaurant.

The Drawbridge wasn't Deters' only tourism project for Northern Kentucky:

• He stayed active on the convention and visitors bureau and pushed for aggressive marketing.

• It was his concept to recast a Covington neighborhood back to its German roots - and the MainStrasse Village entertainment and retail district was born.

• He served on the Kenton County Airport Board, which steered growth of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

• He proposed a farmer's market in downtown Covington that is now on the verge of being built.

By the early 1990s, tourism was beginning to boom in Northern Kentucky. By 1995 the number of hotel rooms in the region had tripled since the Drawbridge's debut. Full-service, economy and extended-stay hotels were popping up on the Covington riverfront, along Interstate 75 in Florence and near the airport in Boone County.

For the first time, Deters could see that the tourism and convention business was starting to pass him and the Drawbridge by.

"Maybe I was too successful at tourism," he said, chuckling. "Everybody was getting business I helped generate. I was glad for the region as a whole, but business was a lot tougher for us."

Deters saw his salvation in a state-funded convention center in Northern Kentucky. He helped lobby for funding and pushed for it to be built near his hotel.

But after a bitter and disappointing fight with other business leaders and politicians, Deters lost out and the convention center went to Covington.

"That was a big blow to the Drawbridge's business," said Steve Stevens, vice president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "It was still a great place, but the big groups were now going to the convention center."

As with any business, there were missteps. The Oldenburg restaurant-bar-beer hall-microbrewery complex, turned out to be a money pit that went out of business. There was too much of a reliance on military reunions, political gatherings and bus tours that rented rooms at discounted rates. Deters resisted linking up with a national franchise as other big chains began staking turf in the region, though the hotel did last year strike a management deal with an outside company and is now formally known as the Drawbridge Villager Premier Hotel.

But most people still call it "The Drawbridge."

And its owner, always the optimist, remains determined.

"We've been through a lot," Deters said. "We'll get through this."


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