Kessler Collection president confirms halt to New Bern’s Elks Temple renovation

The historic Elks building in downtown New Bern. Photo by Todd Wetherington

Updated on November 20:

Plans to resurrect the historic Elks Temple building in downtown New Bern as a boutique hotel appear to have been abandoned.

On November 20, Mark Kessler, the president and COO of the building’s owner, the Kessler Collection, confirmed in an email statement that the organization has stepped back from plans to renovate the building.

“In summary, the continued increases in construction and development costs coupled with rising interest rates yielded returns below our minimum investment criteria,” Kessler stated. 

Recent comments made by New Bern Mayor Jeffrey Odham had raised doubts about the future of the project.

As part of a discussion during the new business section of the Board of Aldermen’s November 14 meeting, Odham commented, “I love the fact that everybody uses this motto ‘Everything comes together here.'” Well, do we really want to talk about that because I can tell you a lot of things that didn’t come together here. One of them is the Kessler’s with the Elks building that’s going to sit vacant until someone else comes up with about $27 million to do something with it.”

Contacted by email last Thursday for clarification on whether the Kessler Collection had put the Elks Temple building back on the market, Odham responded, “They are willing to sell based on my only conversation I’ve had with them since being elected mayor. The cost to renovate is a lot higher than they estimated after purchasing it.”

The Orlando, Fla-based Bohemian hospitality brand purchased the Elks Temple building in January 2022 for $2.25 million and announced plans to turn the building, which was built in 1908, into a 50-room luxury boutique hotel. 

At the time of the purchase, the Kessler Collection said it would work with its development, design, and construction team for the next 12-14 months to finalize plans, with an estimated completion date of mid 2024.

In addition to the hotel, plans for the building included a restaurant and bar, a speakeasy, retail space and possibly a ballroom as well, according to Mark Kessler, president and COO of The Kessler Collection

A permit was issued in March 2022 for the demolition of the building’s interior for asbestos removal. In November of that year, the Kessler Collection announced that all pre-construction renovations had been completed and the company was proceeding with its plans for the hotel.

Since that time, however, little has been heard from the company concerning the work or future plans for the Elks Temple building.

Located at 301 Middle Street, the historic structure once served as New Bern’s Elk’s Lodge and also included office space, a Charles’ Store and Gaskins’ Soda Shop.

The Elks Temple building was formerly owned by Empire Properties, a real estate development company based in Raleigh, which purchased the building in 2007 for $1 million and invested more than $500,000 in renovations. The company halted work on the building following the economic downturn in 2008.

If the Kessler Collection’s plans for the Elks Temple building are called off, it will mark the second time the company’s attempts to build a boutique hotel in New Bern have been abandoned. In February 2022, their plan to build a hotel at Union Point Park was set aside after the public learned of and expressed disapproval with the city’s plan to give 2-acres of the park and the Talbot lot to the Kessler Collection as an economic incentive.

There has been speculation that the company wanted to purchase the Sudan Shriner’s properties, which included the Sudan Temple, waterfront property and parking lot. Since then, the properties were purchased by Craven County government. According to public records obtained by New Bern Now, Richard Kessler, CEO of the Kessler Collection, initially expressed interest in the Sudan Temple in July 2021. In September 2021, William Atkinson, director of Real Estate Investments, wrote to City Manager Foster Hughes, “Richard didn’t think condemning and acquiring the Sudan Temple property was a good idea, in his opinion. He thought that it would create too much negativity around the Kessler projects as a whole and worried it might derail our efforts in New Bern. He wanted me to emphasize that we are improving the park, not taking anything from it, but instead giving it a new life and improvements, through a public & private partnership. He asked, who else is going to invest $60-80m in improving the public park…”

The Kessler Collection was founded in 1984 by Savannah native Richard Kessler. The company’s properties include 13 hotels, 27 restaurants and lounges and eight bohemian art galleries. The company’s North Carolina properties include the Grand Bohemian Hotels in Charlotte and Asheville.