|By Brittany Wallman, Sun
SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 12, 2012--Broward County will pay an astounding $1.6 million success fee for a convention center hotel, even though that project was a failure.
The whopping payout will settle a breach of contract lawsuit filed by a county consultant. The consultant, HREC Development Resources, had worked for two and a half years to put together a hotel deal for the county, and a circuit court judge agreed earlier this year that it had earned the contingency fee, even though the county ultimately junked the plan.
Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to settle the case, without a single comment.
The case closes yet another of Broward County's efforts -- the third -- to add a hotel to its convention center, a goal since the center opened in 1991.
One of a handful of longstanding projects the County Commission has been talking about for years, it remains at the starting line while the others -- airport runway, new county courthouse, ship-to-rail facility -- are under construction.
County tourism czar Nicki Grossman estimated the county's now spent $4 million to $5 million on studies and designs and reports for the hotel -- and now, this lawsuit settlement. Add to that the enormous number of staff hours over the past 20 years.
"That's probably a fortune," she said.
The consultant, John Mark Tobin of HREC, had already collected $473,000 in $270-an-hour fees from the county, bringing his grand total for the hotel-that-wasn't to nearly $2 million.
"It's been very frustrating," Grossman said Tuesday afternoon.
The money for the settlement comes from a coveted reserve fund that's been eyed from all corners in the past year.
The funds are convention center revenues and hotel bed taxes paid by visitors, and can be used for a convention center expansion or anything from beach renourishment to tourism advertising and marketing. Tourist taxes have been loaned this year to the Florida Panthers to renovate the BB&T Center, and given to the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale for enhancements there.
But the county faced a risk in continuing its appeal in court.
"We were settling a judgment from the trial court that, with interest, was between $2.6 million and $2.7 million," assistant county attorney Andrew Meyers said. "Thus, the settlement proceeds are more than $1 million less than the judgment amount awarded by the trial court."
The county argued in court that county commissioners never actually voted on the contract in 2007 that contained the large advisory fee, and that it was signed in error by deputy county attorney Noel Pfeffer and then-County Mayor Josephus Eggelletion.
The dealings occurred under then-County Attorney Jeff Newton. The county in its legal documents painted a picture of County Commission meetings full of misunderstandings and haziness on the contract and whether a vote had occurred.
Attorney Glenn Waldman of Weston, representing HREC, said Tuesday that it was actually "crystal clear. They knew precisely what they were voting on."
The county also argued that HREC didn't accomplish what was necessary to warrant the contingency fee, and that it was based on a hotel cost estimate that was far from firm.
But the county's arguments were undermined by its own chief financial officer, Michael Geoghegan. By the time he gave his damning testimony, he no longer worked for Broward County. His testimony convinced Broward Circuit Judge Jack Tuter that the advisory fee was warranted.
Grossman said the continued lack of a hotel has hurt convention business -- the largest recurring convention group has left because of it.
So now it's time for Convention Center Hotel, Take IV.
A new study of a convention center expansion and hotel is in the works, she said -- cautiously.
"Everybody wants to be very, very sure before we initiate a project again," said Grossman.
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