HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – John Q. Hammons, the billionaire real estate tycoon who developed Huntsville’s Embassy Suites hotel, died Sunday in a Springfield, Mo., nursing home. He was 94.
The $40 million Embassy Suites overlooking Big Spring International Park is one of 210 hotel properties in 40 states operated by John Q. Hammons Hotels Resorts.
But it almost didn’t happen.
Hammons was set to build an Embassy Suites in Huntsville in 1994 — until then-City Council President Chuck Saunders reversed his vote on a deal that called for the Downtown Redevelopment Authority to borrow money to construct the hotel and lease it to Hammons. Hammons filed an $11 million breach of contract lawsuit against then-Mayor Steve Hettinger and the council; a federal jury later awarded him $547,515.
Following the court battle, city officials redoubled their efforts to attract a major downtown convention hotel. And Hammons kept the Rocket City on his radar.
Former Mayor Loretta Spencer said Hammons resurfaced in June 2003, a day after the city rejected eight possible hotel deals as too expensive.
“He called us and said, ‘How would you like for me to come down and talk about putting an Embassy Suites in your town?’” Spencer said Tuesday.
Hammons flew to Huntsville the following week, and Spencer invited him to lunch at her house on Monte Sano. She recalls serving chicken salad, fruit salad and a vegetable salad, along with chocolates for dessert.
“He told me he had never been invited into a mayor’s home for a meal,” said Spencer. “It was unusual for him, but I thought we needed informal conversations to start with.”
That luncheon sowed the seeds for what would become Huntsville’s Embassy Suites. Spencer said the deal, which included a Ruth’s Chris steakhouse and climate-controlled walkway connecting the hotel to the South Hall of the Von Braun Center, was hammered out in just three weeks.
The 300-room Embassy Suites opened on Nov. 1, 2006, and quickly became one of the most successful hotels in Hammons’ portfolio.
While Hammons moved on to other deals in other cities, he and Spencer kept in touch. He sent her flowers every Mother’s Day; she sent him “loud ties” for his birthday.
“He was always interested in another location here,” said Spencer. “He loved Huntsville and was so pleased with how (the Embassy Suites) operated.”
Hammons, who shunned big cities in favor of college towns and state capitals, also developed the Embassy Suites in downtown Montgomery.
“He would say, ‘The kids will always go to school, and you can’t fire the damn politicians,’” former John Q. Hammons Hotels Resorts executive Scott Tarwater said in a March 2011 interview.
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