|By Morris Fraser, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 4, 205 - The five biggest resort hotels on Okaloosa Island are open or expected to be opened by April, according to their managers, taking up the slack caused by the loss of the Radisson Beach Resort.
The Ramada Plaza Beach Resort, the largest hotel on the island with 335 rooms, is two months away from reopening, according to general manager Werner Brielmayer.
"We're playing by ear," he said. "We're shooting for April 1, but we've had construction problems." The Ramada and the Holiday Inn Sunspree are the only large hotels on the island not yet open following repairs and renovations caused by Hurricane Ivan. The delay has given rise to rumors that the Ramada might be sold for a condominium development, as the Radisson was in October, when damage was considered too great to allow reopening.
"The rumors are false," Brielmayer said. "Everything is for sale, but our remodeling tells you something." Brielmayer said 70 percent of his rooms will be brand new, with others undergoing some lesser renovation.
In the tower on the south end of the property, rooms and halls were gutted from four inches above the floor and are being repaired with all new electrical, plumbing and air conditioning. Roofing is being replaced throughout the complex.
Brielmayer said Sheetrock was taken out in all rooms "to get rid of mold" and new bedding has been ordered.
"We kept the best of the old furniture, but we're buying more," he said.
He said the renovation will cost $5 million and will include revamping the interior gardens, putting the swimming pools back in order and repairing a $380,000 children's play area that was only months old when the storm struck.
The major inns' return to business will be a boon to Okaloosa County's bed tax revenue. County figures show that in 2003 and 2004 the six largest hotels, including the Radisson, generated an average annual $1,040,614 for tourism development.
That's 27 percent of the total bed tax revenue generated from all sources in the county.
State confidentiality laws prohibit breaking down the figures by property, but the total of 1,321 rooms in those six properties show an average annual revenue-generator of $787.77 per room. Subtract the 299 rooms lost because of the Radisson's closure, and the county might expect $805,101 in 2005 from the remaining 1,022 rooms.
The Crescent Resources-built condominium that will replace the Radisson will add to the total revenue after it opens in 2006.
Despite the storm, figures show that bed tax revenue overall was up for the final three months of the year, compared to the previous year. In October 2004, bed tax revenues jumped 5.3 percent over the previous year.
"People aren't going to like to hear this, but one thing that is helping tourism is the conference center," said Darrel Jones, executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council. "It's continuing to bring in people.
"Another thing is Ivan. We're running 90 to 100 percent full on the rooms that are open. We have 8,700 rooms open of the 18,000.
"The third thing is the resiliency of the industry. These owners are sometimes spending their own money to fix their places because they haven't gotten their insurance yet. But they want to get open for the tourists.
"And if you compare the latest figures to 2001-2002, it's up 56 percent. We're advertising well."
The Best Western Fort Walton Beachfront has been open since November, and the Hampton Inn has been open about a month. Each has 100 rooms, and each has been fully occupied or nearly so, according to resort spokesmen.
Keith Myers, general manager of the Four Points by Sheraton, said 141 rooms are open now, with another 50 expected to be ready by Memorial Day.
"We won't be completely done until July 2006," he said, citing construction delays caused by hurricane-related rebuilding. "Contractors are hard to get now." The Holiday Inn SunSpree anticipates a March 1 opening for its 195 rooms.
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