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Developers Propose Formation of Financing Authority to Issue $142.5 million in
Bonds to Help Fund Planned Ozean Hilton Hotel on Okaloosa Island, Florida

By Kari C. Barlow, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton BeachMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 18, 2010--FORT WALTON BEACH -- A group of local and outof-town businessmen have proposed forming a hotel financing authority to help develop the Ozean Hilton Hotel project on Okaloosa Island.

Joe Winkeler of Ozean Development and Hank Fishkind of Fishkind and Associates Inc. presented the idea to Okaloosa County commissioners Tuesday.

"The reason we're here is the capital markets are extraordinarily difficult," Fishkind said.

Under the proposal, the authority would issue $142.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to finance the four-star convention hotel and spa.

Early plans call for 450 luxury rooms, a 9,900-square-foot spa, a skywalk to the beach, six restaurants and more than 50,000 square feet of meeting space.

The team associated with Ozean Development and the proposed hotel financing authority includes Winkeler, Fishkind, DC Architects, F i r s t S o u t h w e s t , R o y Anderson Corp. and local attorney Jeff McIniss.

Fishkind said the authority would own the hotel and be independent of the county.

"Our idea, our concept ... is there would be no liability for the county," he told the board. "The risk is only to the bond holders."

Fishkind, of Orlando, said that type of public-private partnership would be the first of its kind in Florida. He said similar financing authorities have been formed in cities such as Boston, San Antonio, Dallas and Chicago to develop convention hotels.

"There's great interest in this across the state," he said. "We think it's very innovative."

Commissioners first must approve an ordinance allowing for the formation of hotel financing authorities in Okaloosa County.

County Commission Chairman Wayne Harris said he wanted to know more about the county's role in the project.

"My only concern ... is the county's liability," Harris said.

Some residents were skeptical. They warned commissioners not to believe the group's claim that the county would not be financially liable if the project failed.

Pete Blome of Niceville said the hotel financing authority would be another layer of bureaucracy and pose an unfair and "discriminatory" situation for other businesses.

Mark Mustian, one of the county's financial consultants, told the board "a number of communities in Florida are trying to finance convention hotels, and it's very difficult."

County Administrator Jim Curry suggested the county conduct an independent feasibility study at Ozean Development's expense to determine if the proposal would benefit the county.

"If the board has an interest in going forward, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered," he said.

Commissioners voted 3-0 to direct the county staff to contract for an independent feasibility study. Commissioners John Jannazo and Don Amunds recused themselves from the discussion and vote because of possible conflicts of interest.


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