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Fort Lauderdale's Plans for a 1,000 room Convention Center Hilton Hotel Hits Set Back;
Florida Attorney General Rules Officials Cannot Use Countywide Lodging Taxes
 to Help Build the Hotel

By Scott Wyman, South Florida Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 22, 2008 - Broward County's plans for a new luxury hotel next to its convention center were set back Thursday when state Attorney General Bill McCollum said officials cannot spend tourism tax money to help build it.

The county had been exploring a pledge of up to $21 million a year in tourism taxes and convention center revenue. But McCollum said state law does not allow taxes charged on hotel rooms to be spent for hotel construction.

County commissioners had extended a May 1 deadline for developers to finish their plans so McCollum could weigh in on the legality of using the tax money. Mayor Lois Wexler said McCollum's ruling could force commissioners to back away from their selection of Hilton Hotels and instead explore an alternative proposal from the Marriott chain.

"I don't think these guys can pull it off without tourism dollars, so if we want to bring this to a conclusion, we may need to look at Marriott," she said.

The county chose Hilton over Marriott last November to build the 1,000-room hotel next to the convention center, just off 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale. Tourism executives have long sought an on-site hotel to boost convention business. It would cost $460 million.

A financial analysis for commissioners showed they would have to commit a fifth of the taxes that tourists now pay to stay at county hotels. All the revenue collected from events at the convention center also would have to be spent on constructing the hotel.

County attorneys earlier advised commissioners that the use of tourism taxes for the hotel was legally shaky even though the money would be used only if hotel revenue did not cover construction costs. The tax dollars can be spent only for tourist-related purposes specified in state law.

"It is my opinion that Broward County may not use tourist development tax revenues ... for the purpose of financing, in whole or in part, the construction, furnishing and equipping of a hotel," McCollum wrote in his opinion to County Attorney Jeff Newton.

In a memo late Thursday to commissioners, Newton said there is still a chance of using tourism taxes. He noted McCollum said the money could be spent to build parking and kitchen or catering facilities if the work is part of an expansion of the convention center.

Scott Wyman can be reached at swyman@sun-sentinel .com or 954-356-4511.


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