By Brandon VerVelde
When Alex Patel, Tim Patel and Chet Patel – all lifetime members of AAHOA – face the voters on May 6, they’ll have put in their all to their election campaigns. They each hope to celebrate a victory that night.
Alex and Tim are from Palestine, Texas, and Chet is from Athens, Texas. They are each running to serve on the city council in their communities.
Reached by phone in March, a common theme emerged in their discussions of each of their campaigns. Running for city council isn’t about them. It’s about giving back to their community.
Using their experience, time and talents to give back was praised by Scott Joslove, president and CEO of the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association.
“We are glad to see so many hoteliers – and particular Asian-American hoteliers – running for local office in Texas,” Joslove said. “Hoteliers understand small business, tourism development and how to manage an organization. I can’t think of better qualifications for leading a community.”
Small-town charm and small-town hospitality
Palestine is a community of around 20,000 set in the woodland of East Texas. The town boasts more than 1,800 historic sites, with a generous stock of historic homes in the downtown area and the Texas State Railroad State Park terminating in town. The Davey Dogwood Park draws visitors from across the region every spring for the beautiful dogwood blossom season.
There’s plenty to be proud of, said both Alex and Tim, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Tim, 36, is married with two kids and is also an AAHOA ambassador for the North Texas Region. He owns two properties in town, a Motel 6 and an Express Inn & Suites, which were both shut down when he originally bought them. He spent months remodeling and preparing for their grand reopening.
In some ways, that experience lends itself to what he wants to see accomplished in the downtown area that’s the heart of the District 6 city council seat he’s seeking to hold. The historic downtown has seen better days.
“Downtown has a lot of businesses that have closed down that need revamping and to be brought back to life. You see, again and again, businesses open and close. They just don’t have the support,” said Tim. “With the right policies, I think I can help bring some of those businesses back to life.”
Indeed, the Palestine Visitors Center boasts of a growing foodie culture, with high-profile chefs developing new restaurant concepts. But so far, there hasn’t been enough customers to keep all the shops, restaurants and entertainment options successful, Tim explained.
Alex, 31, is unmarried with one son and is running for the District 2 seat. He’s currently the director of operations for Palestine’s Hampton Inn & Suites. He’s been developing his career at the property, which he’s managed since 2010, by learning the franchise system and learning the brand. He first got involved with city government a few years ago when his property earned the naming rights to a new soccer complex.
He related the challenges in downtown Palestine to what Dallas has done to revitalize the Deep Ellum district. What once was an industrial area has seen waves of revitalization as an entertainment destination. The same could be done with Palestine’s downtown, he said.
“We’re becoming a culinary destination. There’s good chefs and fine dining. Great drafthouses in town,” Alex said. “We have the small-town charm and small-town hospitality.”
Promoting the city’s tourism
Both Tim and Alex agree that the key to improving the city is to rededicate hotel occupancy tax funds to actually promoting the city for tourism rather than spending the funds on fruitless projects.
The city has been spending around $200,000 from the hotel occupancy tax annually subsidizing a civic center that brings in less than $20,000 in revenue and hosts mostly local events, according to Alex and Tim.
“There are local events like weddings and reunions, but those aren’t putting heads in beds,” said Tim.
“The city’s marketing director is doing a great job promoting the city,” said Alex, “But we want her to have a bigger budget to actually bring visitors to town.”
By Texas law, hotel occupancy tax funds may only be spent to directly enhance and promote tourism and the convention and hotel industry. Additionally, Texas law lays out nine specific criteria for legal expenditures of the funds, according to the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association. It doesn’t appear that subsidizing a civic center is one of the allowed expenses.
Tim didn’t mince words. “They’re illegally funneling the hotel tax dollars over to the civic center,” he said.
Addressing the issue will be a top priority for both should they win seats on the city council.
Bringing business insight
Tim and Alex are looking forward to bringing a business background and expertise in the hotel industry to making decisions for the city.
Tim, for example, spoke critically of his opponent’s plan to address an issue of illegal dumping. The opponent’s plan was for a $150,000 camera system that Tim says is far too expensive.
“From a businessman’s perspective, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “I want to bring realism as to how much things should cost and how much the city should be spending.”
Alex spoke of bringing new ideas to the city council.
“The council has been doing OK, but they need some fresh, new minds,” said Alex. “If I’m elected, I’ll be the youngest council member to ever serve. I’ll bring in new ideas. That’s going to benefit the whole community.”
Alex is hoping to do more than just help his community. He wants to be an inspiration to young AAHOA members throughout the country and show them that they need to give back to their communities.
“If you have a property, all these years your community has given to you in one way or another,” he explained. “Like you renovate your property to invest back into your business you have to give back to your community, whether that’s through serving on a board or whatever the case is.”
Giving back to your community
Not more than 35 miles to the northwest of Palestine, Chet is taking Alex’s advice to heart. He’s running for the city council in Athens, a community of just over 12,000 Texans.
Athens describes itself as having the “charm of a small southern town while still retaining many of the qualities of a larger city.” Perhaps a lesser known fact – but one that Chet boasts of proudly – is that Athens is considered the home of the original hamburger. It has a scenery not unlike Palestine’s, with lush wooded areas punctuated by well-stocked fishing ponds and lakes, and a sense of history that goes back to the mid-19th century.
Chet, 38, lives at and runs a Super 8 property with his wife and two sons. They’ve been in Athens for more than a decade now.
His involvement in the community began with the serving on the Athens Chamber of Commerce board, where he is currently the chairman of chamber’s ambassador program. About two years ago, he was asked to serve on the Tourism Advisory Council, which oversees the allocation of the hotel occupancy tax funds.
Unlike Palestine, Chet said the city has been doing a good job allocating the dollars for projects, though he cautioned that they might be taking on too many large projects before focusing on the basics.
“Right now, the city is taking on some big projects like the Texan Theater and the Cain Center,” he said. “I want to make sure the funds are used properly. I want to bring my business experience – as far as my knowledge of setting a budget and being a leader – to help the city council make the right decisions.”
Chet’s start in the hotel industry is a familiar story. His parents bought their first property in Oregon in 1989. At age 10, Chet was helping out at the property and he continued all the way through college, which he attended nearby. After a stint working at a software company after graduating, Chet took time off. He started in the hotel business full-time and there’s been no looking back since.
The challenges of running for public office
In his race for the city council, where he’s running for Place 1, Chet said his biggest challenge is getting his message out.
“The business community knows me and that I’m running, but the majority of the population don’t know who I am or what I’m doing,” he said. “It will be a challenge to reach the voters and letting them know that I’m running.”
Chet cautioned that the challenges facing him in his run for office shouldn’t stop other AAHOA members from running for office in their towns.
“I want to make sure people know that we all need to get involved in our local communities and local government if we want to see a change and make a difference,” Chet said. “We can’t let things just be the same old, same old. In order to make changes and move things in the right direction, getting involved is the biggest step.”
Alex summed it up well for AAHOA members on the fence about becoming more involved in their communities.
“I think a lot of people are scared. They think, ‘Who’s going to let me in?’” he said. “Look at me. I’m 31. I don’t have much experience. I make mistakes, but I keep going. If the community has given to you then you should give to the community.” ■
Brandon VerVelde is Director of Government Affairs Communication for AAHOA and can be reached at [email protected]