|By Scott Wyman, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 25, 2007 - Marriott and Hilton are locked in a pitched battle to do what no one has succeeded in doing in two decades: build a hotel to serve Broward County's convention center and boost that emerging piece of the area's tourism trade.
Each industry giant proposes a 1,000-room luxury hotel on county land next to the convention center off 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale. The project will cost more than $400 million, but county officials are not offering any cash contribution of taxpayer money to help pay for construction unlike the last time they considered a hotel.
Tourism executives have long bemoaned the lack of a hotel because meeting planners often shun a destination where they cannot ensure attendees can stay at the same place as the convention. A county-paid analysis estimated the convention center's impact on the area economy could grow from $81.6 million annually to $118 million if there is a companion hotel.
"We continue to lose business because we can't provide a single location," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "This destination has climbed into the first tier of meeting destinations, but we need a hotel. We don't simply need a new hotel on 17th Street, but we need a hotel that helps us develop our meeting business."
The convention center, at Port Everglades, hosts about 280 events a year and relies on as many as 50 hotels to provide rooms to meeting attendees. In addition to lost business, some of the center's largest conventions, including thoracic surgeons, have expressed concern about returning because they are growing and need a convenient and reliable place to stay.
A hotel could open by early 2012. About 30 stories tall, it would feature a ballroom, meeting rooms, a pool deck, spa and restaurants.
Hilton and Marriott emerged this month as the finalists among four companies that bid on the project. The county dropped Starwood Hotels and Gaylord Entertainment from consideration because they did not provide all the information officials wanted.
The County Commission will choose between the two companies by the end of the year, after they submit more detailed plans about financing and design. The project could be privately financed or could seek government help through tax-exempt bonds or a discount on renting the county land.
Both companies tout experience running convention center hotels in major cities and are partnering with construction management firms and architects that have national reputations in hotel development. It's a stark contrast from the problems that the county has faced over adding a hotel since the convention center opened in 1991.
Economic hard times thwarted the first plans in 1993, and the county forgave a $1.7 million debt owed by the politically connected developers.
Then, a deal with the National Baptist Convention dissolved when the county questioned its financial wherewithal and relationship with then-County Commissioner Sylvia Poitier. The most recent plans by developer R. Donahue Peebles failed in 2001 after he and the county struggled to agree on financing and Wyndham Hotels withdrew as a partner.
Commissioners said they doubt if they will face such problems this time. Still, major hurdles lie ahead.
The county is trying to persuade the Coast Guard to carve the area out of the security zone at Port Everglades so hotel guests and conventioneers are not stopped for ID checks. Also, Fort Lauderdale has raised concerns about traffic and has sought a road through the port that would relieve congestion on 17th Street.
Questions abound over public vs. private financing. Some commissioners have accused their consultants on the project of tilting discussions toward public financing because they would receive a large fee, while tourism officials fear private financing could be so costly that the hotel would want more control over room bookings.
Then, there is the behind-the-scenes lobbying war.
Marriott and its partner, Phelps Development, have assembled a high-powered lobbying team that includes campaign consultant Judy Stern and former County Commissioner George Platt. Hilton and its development partner FaulknerUSA are later arrivals to the lobbying game, but are working with longtime insider Ron Book.
Marriott has sought to boost its case by stating in its proposal that it has exclusive rights to negotiate the purchase of the neighboring Portside Yachting Center. The hotel and convention center could garner a more appealing entrance from 17th Street if that land were part of the deal.
Despite the connections on each side, commissioners said they have no favorite. "Nothing is a given in this thing," Commissioner Lois Wexler said.
Scott Wyman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4511.
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