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Ritz-Carlton returns with perfect 5 in its sights

The complex in Rancho Mirage will solicit elite clients as the region seeks year-round traffic.

January 22, 2007|Ashley Surdin | Times Staff Writer

Ritz-Carlton is returning to Rancho Mirage with a hotel designed to grab a coveted five-star designation, currently lacking among the region's many high-end properties.

It's a sign of the changes underway in the Palm Springs area, where several hotels are getting face-lifts to lure visitors year-round, travel experts say.

Come December, Ritz-Carlton will open a hotel in the foothills of Rancho Mirage, with an affiliated spa and condominiums to follow. The 40-acre development, perched 650 feet above the Coachella Valley floor on Frank Sinatra Drive, is being touted by the developer, Miami-based Gencom Group, as the valley's first five-star resort.

The $500-million investment points up the area's growing popularity as more than a winter tourist destination, particularly among Southern California residents, said Herbert Spiegel, a Gencom vice president and managing director.

"It's much more of a year-round destination than it's ever been," Spiegel said. "People come to escape the hectic madness of their schedules in L.A."

The project brings Ritz-Carlton back to Rancho Mirage, a gated community of 15,000 people. The Ritz opened in 1988 and operated until 2001, when Vail Resorts Inc. turned it into the Lodge at Rancho Mirage. In 2005, Gencom bought the property, which has been closed since August for renovations.

The new Ritz-Carlton will be twice as big as the previous, four-star version, with most of the expansion devoted to a spa and 154 condos. Industry analyst Bruce Baltin said the planned hotel was the kind of property that "is going to upgrade the overall market." Other area hotels undergoing renovations include the Desert Springs Marriott Resort and Spa in Palm Desert and the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa in Indian Wells.

With a 65% hotel occupancy rate, Baltin said, the Coachella Valley is home to a seasonal but healthy business.

The valley "acts as a resort environment, a weekend getaway and group meeting venue for pretty much all of Southern California," Baltin said. "It went through the doldrums for a while in the 1990s, just in terms of there wasn't a lot of new developments. Now, in recent years, it's doing better."

The return of the Ritz was welcome news to some residents.

"We heard a rumor that they were going to come back," said Kim Waltrip, 50, a film producer who lives in La Quinta and was married at the old Ritz hotel in Rancho Mirage. "People loved the Lodge, but everybody missed the Ritz. Everybody still called it the Ritz."

Rating hotels is a subjective business undertaken by several companies. Mobil Travel Guide uses stars, while the American Automobile Assn. awards diamonds. Neither has given its top rating of 5 to any lodging in the Coachella Valley.

Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage is aiming for that level for the 244-room hotel by piling on the luxuries, such as bathtubs flanked by flat-screen televisions, Spiegel said. Two restaurants, one headed by an as-yet-unnamed chef who is "known to the Los Angeles market," are on their way, he said.

Next January, Gencom plans to open the spa and begin selling the condos, including 68 furnished, two-story villas with gourmet kitchens and fire pits.

Spiegel anticipates that the resort will create more than 500 jobs. Rancho Mirage Mayor Richard W. Kite estimated that the city would glean about $2 million a year in annual tax revenue from the project.

"The Ritz name brings with it a certain amount of prestige," Kite said. "It will certainly give us an opportunity to bring in more resort visitors."

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ashley.surdin@latimes.com

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