With every passing month, downtown Columbia draws more people, attractions, restaurants and retail. Right in the middle of this boom is the Sheraton Hotel, located in the historic Palmetto Building on Main Street.
Four years ago, Rick Patel opened the Sheraton at the corner of Main and Washington streets, bringing more than 130 new rooms and suites, a rooftop bar and a unique lobby bar to downtown. Southtrust Bank had vacated the space, and Rick says he knew the location and the historic attributes of the building would combine for a successful hotel space.
Today, the Sheraton is in the center of Columbia’s bustling downtown district, surrounded by restaurants, retail, cultural venues, and this past winter, ice skating.
Rick grew up in the hotel business, learning from his father who spent most of his career purchasing, renovating and selling hotels. His family moved to Manning, S.C. in 1978 when his father came to the United States to learn the hotel business after spending many years owning a supermarket in London.
Not long after purchasing his first hotel in Manning, Rick’s father began buying and selling hotels along the North Carolina coast. “My father’s accountant was located in Columbia, so he came here frequently for business,” Rick recalls. “He really liked Columbia because the market wasn’t as seasonal as it was in beach communities.”
Rick’s family moved to Columbia in 1986 and began a series of purchases, renovations and sales of hotels around Columbia including the Days Inn on I-20 and North Main Street, Holiday Inn Express locations on Garners Ferry Road, Two Notch Road and on Huger Street at Taylor Street downtown, the Harbison Comfort Suites, the Wingate at Two Notch and I-20 and the Homewood Suites on Greystone Boulevard, among many others.
After owning so many hotels around the perimeter of Columbia, Rick decided in 2004 it was time to come downtown, and he purchased the Palmetto Building at the corner of Main and Washington. He began construction in 2006 and opened the 17-floor Sheraton in 2008.
Since the building had been used for a bank and leased office space, Rick had to gut the whole building to upfit it as a hotel. “We had to put in all new plumbing for one thing,” Rick says. “Because of how beautiful the building was, we were intent on making every inch matter.” Rick says he was very involved in every aspect of the renovation.
One of the most interesting finds during the renovation was the discovery of an empty shaft near the back of the building. “We found dozens of empty liquor bottles that apparently had been thrown in there by the workers when the building was being built in 1913.”
Also in the shaft was a newspaper article describing the opening of the building on Nov. 9, 1913. Rick says that he plans a celebration this fall to commemorating the 100th anniversary of Columbia’s fourth tallest building.
While Rick has been very successful in his business, he is also very mindful of his responsibility to be involved in the community. Rick has become a visible part of downtown’s growth and development over the past four years as a board member on City Center Partnership, the Columbia Hotel Association and the Cultural Council and as president of the Columbia Police Department Foundation.
Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott tapped Rick to lead the Police Department Foundation, which raises money for the needs of police officers beyond what the city can support. Rick and Randy have known each other for many years, dating back to 1996 when Rick owned the Wingate hotel on Two Notch Road and Randy was with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. “Rick understands how important it is to keep his downtown hotel top quality. He has a very good staff, and he pays real attention to detail everywhere in and around the hotel,” Randy says.
But Rick’s commitment to the community goes beyond serving in formal leadership roles. In 2010 when the Finlay House apartments in Five Points caught fire, Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins called to ask Rick for assistance in temporarily housing some of the displaced elderly residents.
Despite the fact it was a football weekend, meaning most of his in-town properties were full, Rick found space at his hotel on Harbison. By the time his charges arrived, he had pizza and soft drinks waiting for them in a meeting room. The hotel was their home for eight days until the Finlay House was deemed safe for occupancy.
Rick believes that this personal touch is critical to his success in the highly competitive hotel business. Paying particular attention to his employees, Rick knows their birthdays and stays abreast of what’s happening with their families. “Employees like to see the owner paying attention to detail in his investment,” he says.
That personal touch also means he’s just as likely to be found emptying an overflowing trash can in the lobby as chatting with a state legislator who makes the Sheraton his home during session days.
Rep. Bakari Sellers of Bamberg, a regular at the Sheraton during the legislative session, says, “Rick is the heartbeat of this place. He knows his customers by name and lends a real personal touch to it.”
And that personal touch will also be evident across Washington Street later this year in a new Sheraton convention center Rick is developing to open this spring. He is converting the former First National Bank and Business Center across Washington Street from the Sheraton into a convention center that will be used for both business and social functions. The building is two years older than the 1913 Palmetto Building with very similar architecture, and Rick plans to maintain as much of the building’s original design as possible.
The Sheraton convention center will be more than 10,000 square feet and will feature a 4,500-square-foot ballroom and several smaller rooms for meetings or smaller events. In addition, there will be an outdoor terrace and meeting rooms housed in the original bank vaults, similar to the renovation in the vault in the bar of the Sheraton.
Attorney Robert Lewis has worked closely with Rick on many of his business deals and projects. “Rick has been a pioneer in the revitalization efforts in downtown Columbia,” Robert says. “He is a risk taker and a good businessman. He keeps in mind what’s good for the city, not just what’s good for his business.”
This new convention center is part of what Rick sees as the next phase of development in Columbia. “Housing is getting close to capacity downtown. We’ve seen new office building towers go up in the past couple of years and an increase in restaurants and retail.” He sees the river development as the next step. “When that key turns, I will be right there,” Rick says.
Rick considers himself very lucky to be a part of a growing downtown Columbia. “We have a lot here in Columbia to make us successful that many other cities don’t,” he says, counting state government and the university as stable employers bringing lots of people to downtown. “I travel the world in this business, but I’m always so glad to be back home in Columbia.”
Rick says his philosophy about success in the highly competitive hotel business isn’t just about owning a business; it’s about making a business. Then he pauses and grins. “Plus this is my fun.”