|By Sarah Hale Meitner, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 18, 2005 - Six months and more than $2 million later and the Crowne Plaza Orlando Airport hotel is back in shape.
The hotel that took a pounding first by Hurricane Charley and then by Frances -- more than half of its 353 rooms were destroyed by water damage and its 10-story glass atrium was shattered -- has been restored and upgraded.
The last construction truck pulled away from the property on April 1.
"We've been fortunate. The hotel looks like a million bucks," said Jim Berkley, the hotel's general manager. He said employees are planning a mid-May Caribbean-themed party to celebrate the hotel's reopening.
The trio of hurricanes that pounded Central Florida last fall left many of the region's hotels out of commission for much of the winter. Construction delays -- caused by shortages of both manpower and supplies -- further postponed reopenings.
However, with the busy summer travel season approaching hoteliers are quickly finishing repairs to handle the influx of tourists.
In Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, roughly 1,500 rooms are still unavailable -- a fraction of the region's 114,000 total rooms, said Rich Maladecki, president of the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association.
The bulk of those closings are in the Lake Buena Vista area, he said.
Meanwhile, cleanup continues in Volusia and Brevard counties. Of the 24,000 hotel rooms in the two counties, 2,000 are still shuttered. And there are reports that dozens will never reopen.
Several of the hotels being renovated, such as the Shores Resort and Spa in Daytona Beach, are scheduled to open in coming weeks, just in time for the summer. Others, including the Holiday Inn Melbourne-Oceanfront Hotel and the Quality Suites Oceanfront, have been gutted and won't be ready until early next year.
The Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort, formerly the Adam's Mark Resort, closed in September after Hurricane Jeanne rolled over the hotel's two towers.
The north tower reopened in February, but the south tower, which was nearly wiped out, is still being fixed.
Everything from the rooms to the restaurant to the pool needed repairs, said Angela Cameron, director of public relations.
"It's mostly just public areas now that we're working on," she said. "We'll be ready by June."
A dozen small, independently run beachside motels in south Brevard County also were pummeled by Hurricane Jeanne. Rather than rebuild, several owners have retired or sold their land to developers.
The tiny Sea Grape Manor, a 55-year-old, nine-room motel eleven miles north of Sebastian Inlet, was so badly damaged by hurricanes that county officials ordered that the structure be torn down.
Bulldozers razed the property, just inches from the beach's sand dunes, last month, said D.J. Snapp, owner of the motel.
The Sea Grape, said to be a former U.S. Coast Guard lookout post, was known for its quaint, old Florida feel and private access to the beach -- a spot known for attracting hundreds of sea turtles each year. After Hurricane Jeanne, much of the motel, including the roof, crashed into the dunes.
Snapp said he will likely rebuild on the land, but not another motel. Instead, he's finalizing permit applications to erect three or four condos that he plans to sell.
Other independent hoteliers are doing the same, he said.
"The number of oceanfront hotel rooms in Brevard is shrinking," he said. "Four or five years ago there were 18 or 19 little mom-and-pop motels; now there are fewer than a half dozen left. The land is just too valuable."
Even so, Brevard County tourism officials insist there are plenty of hotel rooms left -- and more on the way.
Roughly 25 percent of Brevard County's 10,000 or so hotel rooms were out of service in late September. That number has dwindled to less than 10 percent.
And by February 2006 -- once renovations are finished -- the number of rooms on the Space Coast is expected to climb.
"There's a silver lining in all of this," said Rob Varley, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism. "By next year, I'll have seven brand new hotels on the beach. Actually, nine. Two more are under construction."
Although most of the region's hotel rooms are back in service, repairs are still under way.
Hoteliers from Kissimmee to downtown Orlando to Cocoa Beach and beyond are repairing damage to public areas, such as lobbies or pools.
Signs, landscaping, rooftops, pools and exterior facades are still being fixed across the region. That work is expected to continue well into summer.
The Orlando Marriott Downtown is expected to be fully repaired by the end of this week -- about two months later than planned, said Mark Moravec, manager of the hotel.
Although the hotel's rooms sustained little damage and remained available to customers, a huge chunk of the exterior facade was ripped off during Hurricane Charley.
"It looked like we got nailed," Moravec said.
Engineering and construction problems delayed repairs, which ended up costing about $500,000, he said.
"We were joking that we'll be finished with everything just in time for hurricane season to start again," Moravec said.
That's not necessarily a bad thing.
Although Orlando-area hotels are expecting a record number of summer tourists, they also could see some east or west coast evacuees if hurricanes strike again. The 2005 hurricane season begins June 1.
To prepare, many Central Florida hoteliers revised evacuation, staffing and crisis plans to better handle operations should another hurricane hit the area. Some hotels even installed back-up generators for their generators, said Maladecki, with the hotel and lodging association.
"All of the hotels learned from those experiences and have done what they can the past several months to make adjustments," he said.
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