|By Scott Wyman, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Aug. 2, 2006 - Five years after Broward County commissioners shelved plans to build a luxury hotel at the convention center, interest is growing among developers and hoteliers in the long-sought but repeatedly beleaguered project.
As county consultants begin to explore how to revive the hotel project, tourism officials say former hurdles in finding key private partners appear to be gone.
The sponsorship of a major hotel chain had proven troublesome before, but chains have told the county this time they are interested. And owners of the Northport Marketplace next door say they want to be partners in the deal. That prospect would allow the hotel to be better situated along Fort Lauderdale's 17th Street corridor rather than confined to the narrow strip of county-owned land, as it had been in past plans.
"We are in the earliest stages, but there is incredible interest from the development and hotel community," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Plans to build a hotel to serve convention-goers collapsed in 2001, when commissioners were unable to come to an agreement with developer R. Donahue Peebles. Since the late 1980s, when the Broward County Convention Center itself was conceived, officials have argued a neighboring hotel is needed to lure large conventions because participants want to stay on-site at guaranteed rates.
The visitors bureau has been relying on blocks of rooms that hotels throughout the area agreed to set aside for conventions, but that has not satisfied some meeting planners. Also, hotels are increasingly having trouble accommodating the needs.
Conventions account for 3 million of the 10 million visitors a year who come to the area, providing a boost to the local economy of about $1 billion a year.
The county recently gave LMN Architects of Seattle permission to draw up new plans for a hotel -- this time with 800 rooms and up to four stars in quality. The cost could reach $200 million, which the county still hopes to finance primarily by finding private partners.
Officials don't expect to be ready to solicit proposals from developers for about 18 months. That would mean a hotel could open in 2010.
Grossman said hotel chains, including Hilton, have privately expressed interest in the project in recent months. Christopher Pollock, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, also said chains have approached him.
Hilton spokeswoman Lisa Cole said the chain, which is one of the nation's leaders in operating hotels connected with convention centers, would be interested in the Fort Lauderdale project.
Pollock and Grossman said the convention center's success has shown the hotel industry that the project is viable. Also, local hoteliers who had questioned a county-sponsored hotel now largely favor it because of the difficulty guaranteeing room blocks for conventions.
One player could be the Northport Marketplace.
The shopping center had been largely closed when it was put up for auction in 2002, but the new owners have added tenants and are interested in redeveloping as part of a hotel project. The county considered buying the center in the auction, and officials still covet it.
The county and its consultants must overcome several hurdles before they can move forward.
A development deal with the city to allow a hotel expires next year and must be extended. The city has told the county that it has concerns about traffic near Port Everglades and the convention center.
Also, the convention center has been within the security perimeter of the port since 2001, meaning visitors are stopped and must show identification. That has concerned meeting planners, and the county is trying to find a way to move the perimeter and still meet Department of Homeland Security requirements.
Scott Wyman can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4511.
Copyright (c) 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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