|By Daphne Sashin, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 19, 2005 - KISSIMMEE -- Osceola County commissioners' options to build a convention center are down to only one in the wake of advice from the county attorney recommending against one of the two proposals on the table.
The commission on Monday was to decide between rival offers from FaulknerUSA and Gaylord Entertainment to build a convention center and hotel that business operators on West U.S. Highway 192 hoped would draw more business travelers to the tourist corridor.
But a memo from County Attorney Jo Thacker on Thursday advised the commission to reject FaulknerUSA's proposal amid a legal dispute over the control of land on which its facility was to be built.
"Although it appears that all of the other elements of Faulkner's plan are in place, as you know, the availability of the land is a critical component," Thacker wrote. "Based upon the lawsuit and the issues raised, I feel that it is presently impossible for Faulkner to implement its proposal, and I must recommend to you not to award Faulkner the convention center."
There doesn't appear to be enough support among commissioners for Gaylord Entertainment's proposal -- under which the county would help it finance an expansion to the Gaylord Palms -- and at least two commissioners said the county's long-sought convention center is likely a lost cause for now.
"This is just something that has happened to give us a message that maybe we should not be in the convention center business and we should not go forward with this," Commission Chairman Paul Owen said. "There's just a consensus in the community and probably the other board members that this is not the time to propose a convention center."
Under Faulkner's proposal, the company would have given the county the 70-acre convention center site and would develop the complex for the county. At a special meeting Wednesday, Faulkner president Mark Schultz told commissioners his company owned a 50 percent stake in the land and had a "gentlemen's agreement" with Palm Beach developer Rob Miller for the remaining 50 percent pending final approval from the county.
But Tuesday, Miller filed a lawsuit in Osceola Circuit Court against Faulkner, contending that he and his partners have the right to buy out Faulkner's interest in the property because the company tried to change the terms of the original agreement.
Miller said Friday he has other plans for the site but would not disclose them. Miller owns 850 acres and has a contract to buy 600 more acres in the same area.
Texas-based Faulkner, which says it has invested more than $8 million in the deal, acknowledged Friday that its proposal was effectively dead after years of on-and-off negotiations with the county.
"We are absolutely stunned by Mr. Miller's actions," Schultz said in a statement. "The county has worked so long with us to achieve this project and all FaulknerUSA team members have put so much into building a financing structure and a plan unlike anything that has ever been done in the entire county."
Though it was more costly than Gaylord's proposal, some commissioners indicated a preference for the Faulkner deal because it would allow the county to own a convention center facility at the end of the process. The Gaylord offer did not.
County Commissioner Ken Shipley said he didn't want to see another proposal for a convention center for at least two years. In the meantime, he said, the board should "get the taste of this out of our mouth" and focus on other ways to boost tourism and diversify the county's economy.
If the commission decides to drop plans for a public-private convention center, it faces questions about the fate of the sixth penny of hotel taxes it has been levying on visitors since last year to fund the project. Shipley said he wants the county to continue collecting the money for at least a few more months and use it for advertising, improvements to the Osceola Heritage Park and other projects.
Commissioner Atlee Mercer said the county should start the process to repeal the extra tax.
"You never give government more than it needs," he said. "That sixth cent was only passed for credit support for our convention center."
While conceding it was unlikely, Mercer said he wouldn't be surprised if Miller and Faulkner settled at the last minute or someone else came forward.
"This has been a situation that seems to metamorphose itself at the last minute repeatedly over the last four years, and I see no reason why this pattern should stop now," Mercer said. "Stay tuned."
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