Syrian billionaire Ghassan Aboud has emerged as a leading contender to buy Newcastle City Council’s “roundhouse” building and turn it into a five-star hotel.
A representative of the Dubai-based businessman confirmed on Friday that his Australian luxury hotel business, Crystalbrook Collection, had lodged a tender for the nine-storey building.
Crystalbrook chief executive officer Mark Davie, who moved from Sydney to Merewether early this year, said on Friday that he intended to give the circular building a gold-plated renovation rather than demolish it if his firm won the tender.
“I’d rather work with this. As I sit here and look at it, it’s pretty dirty, but with a good clean it will come up, and it is one of those buildings that has a very strong identity and a connection to Newcastle,” he told the Newcastle Herald while sitting in a cafe in Wheeler Place.
“Most people who visit Newcastle would see this building and remember it. I don’t want to replace it with something modern.”
Mr Davie said the building could accommodate at least 100 hotel rooms fanning out from the central lift well, but he had not discussed plans in detail with his architects.
“I don’t like to pre-empt any of these things. It’s a council decision, and we hope it works in our favour, but it doesn’t always work out as you would hope,” he said.
“If I know by the end of the year, we start our architectural drawings immediately next year.”
Securing an international buyer such as Mr Aboud could be seen as a coup for the council, which put the roundhouse, officially known as the City Administration Centre, and the neighbouring Fred Ash building up for tender in August to either sell or lease.
Crystalbrook last year launched $370 million plans to build three five-star hotels in Cairns. The first of these, Riley, on the site of the former Tradewinds hotel, opened this month.
The company snapped up a fourth prime Cairns site in December last year for a commercial redevelopment, apartments and 3.5-star hotel.
It also owns the Port Douglas marina and has plans to build a five-star hotel, a six-star hotel and apartments on the site.
Most people who visit Newcastle would see this building and remember it. I don’t want to replace it with something modern.- Crystalbrook Collection CEO Mark Davie
Crystalbrook has looked at several other potential sites for hotels in Newcastle, including at Honeysuckle, but the roundhouse appears to be its preferred location.
“There’s a few around, but we think we can do something with this building,” Mr Davie said.
“At the same time we know there are other interested parties with other ideas. We’re just one group at the moment, but it’s certainly something I’m pretty keen on.
“I'm sure that whatever happens Crystalbrook will finish up in Newcastle.”
He would not speculate on how much it would cost to convert the 1970s landmark but said “if it’s going to be a five-star hotel, you’d need to spend a fair bit of money on it to make it something special”.
He also would not say how much Crystalbrook could pay for the roundhouse, though the Herald understands the council is seeking about $15 million to help offset the costs of moving its staff to new premises in Newcastle West.
Tenders for both buildings closed in late September, and councillors are expected to receive a report soon from staff with recommendations for the future of the sites.
Council chief executive officer Jeremy Bath said in September that interest in both buildings had “exceeded our wildest expectations”.
Mr Aboud, who visited Newcastle in September, owns Orient Media, Syria’s main television, radio and online media network, and has a host of other business interests.
The 51-year-old has a journalism degree from Damascus University but launched his business career exporting cars in the United Arab Emirates in 1994.
That company has grown into a conglomerate, Ghassan Aboud Group, which includes media, motor vehicle, hospitality, real estate and retail subsidiaries.
The car company alone employs about 1200 people across the Middle East, Europe and North America.
In 2012, Mr Aboud set up Orient Humanitarian, a charity helping refugees of the Syrian conflict which also runs hospitals in the country’s north.
Mr Davie said he “loved” Newcastle after recently becoming a resident and was “personally invested” in seeing it grow.
“Newcastle has got to develop, but at the same time it’s got to retain its history as well, and that’s one of the things I like about Newcastle,” he said.
“I like seeing the new developments down at west end, I like to see the terraces at the east end, and I like to see this cultural centre here.”
He said the roundhouse’s architecture elicited a variety of opinions among Novocastrians, but he was a fan.
“I could see that it would be ugly, but I could look at it in a different way and see it’s a unique property.
“You probably wouldn’t build another one of them, but why not do something with this property.
“We can build as many brand new buildings as we like up there in west end and put the new towers in, and that’s all necessary.
“It’s essential for this city to have all that development going on, because it does bring in the population and the growth and the jobs, I would hope, but let’s not take away the history, otherwise you destroy that cultural history of Newcastle.”
Mr Davie praised the council for its “proactiveness”.
“I look at the different initiatives of the council, and I think it’s very positive, and it’s youthful, which I like as well, versus some of the other councils we work with who tend to be more of the traditional councils.
“This council is very vibrant, which is what the city needs.”
A roundhouse hotel would be the fourth in the pipeline for Newcastle’s inner-city.
Doma Group has started work on its 140-room Little National Hotel at Honeysuckle.
The company behind the Hunter Street Mall redevelopment, Iris Capital, and Great Northern Hotel owner Bass Elhashem are both negotiating with potential boutique hotel operators for their sites.
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