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Chicagoan Ben Weprin launching Graduate Hotels

Can't find a hotel room for homecoming weekend? Ben Weprin's AJ Capital is on it.

The night after I graduated from Northwestern, I stayed with my parents in a Fairfield Inn in Gurnee, 32 miles north of campus.

It was the closest room my family could find and afford. More than a decade later, downtown Evanston boasts all of five "hotels," a tight enough market to choke wallets on peak weekends.

Chicago hotel developer Ben Weprin, 36, thinks college towns remain underserved and is launching a hotel chain targeting them. That means Madison, Wis.; Bloomington, Ind.; Oxford, Miss.; Tempe, Ariz.; Charlottesville, Va.; and Athens, Ga., are in line for a new Graduate Hotel.

Weprin's goal is 15 to 20 hotels in five years. Some will be built and others remodeled, with the average project costing $20 million.

All will offer local menus and drinks and feature local artwork. But no pennants on the walls or school mascots in the lobby, Weprin says.

That would be too obvious. The goal is that when someone walks into the lobby, something quirky or fun will be worthy of a cellphone photo and Facebook post.

Such as an ant farm behind the front desk in Tempe, an homage to Arizona State's social insects department. The Wall Street Journal claims the department is popular.

But what about the summer months?

"That's a misconception," Weprin said of ebbs and flows in demand. "In Oxford, Ohio, yes, there are not very many businesses other than Miami University. But when you look at Madison, Wis., you have a state Capitol. You have job creation. You have hospital systems."

Jack Corgel, a professor of real estate at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, said business in college towns is seasonal but stable. At the hotel the Cornell program runs on campus, alumni returning to campus for friends' weddings book rooms in June and early July, and tourism to the region's wineries is increasing, he said.

"There's a presumption, although never empirically proven, that university communities are fairly stable," Corgel said. "Although enrollments don't fluctuate much, many universities are developing side businesses, such as research parks, executive education programs, new institutes, that are growing quite quickly."

Weprin's AJ Capital Partners will spend up to $500 million on the brand, having raised money from investors including Hong Kong-based Gaw Capital Partners. The company declined to reveal additional backers or the amount of their investments. It has hired Christian Strobel from California's Joie de Vivre boutique chain to run the company.

Weprin, who launched AJ Capital in 2008, has four hotel projects in Chicago: the former Chicago Athletic Association on South Michigan Avenue, set to open next year; Hotel Lincoln in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, home to the restaurant Perennial Virant; Thompson Chicago in the Gold Coast, home to the Nico Osteria restaurant; and the West Loop's newly opened SoHo House, which doubles as a private club.

All these deals are partnerships with California billionaire John Pritzker's Geolo Capital, billionaire Neil Bluhm's Walton Street Capital and Chicago developer Jeff Shapack, whose portfolio is concentrated in the West Loop, among others.

"Hotel Lincoln was the genesis for what we're doing in these (college) markets," Weprin said. "Unique, distinctive, where there are a lack of hotels that reflect the personalities of their surroundings. The Hotel Lincoln feels like Lincoln Park."

This is the first time Weprin, a native of Dayton, Ohio, has launched a brand. The Tempe (Arizona State) and Athens (University of Georgia) locations are scheduled to open in October.

"Unlike others who wait for deals to be served up in front of them, that's not how Ben does deals," Shapack said. "He goes out. He creates the deals."

Weprin said he hopes Graduate "disrupts" the hotel market in these college towns. Evanston could use some of that.

mmharris@tribune.com

Twitter @chiconfidential

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