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June 14--NORTH PORT -- North Port city commissioners have approved the construction contract for the North Port Aquatic Center at Butler Park and took steps to ease the way for the construction of the first new hotel in North Port since 1973.

Both items have been long-awaited by the residents of Sarasota's largest municipality.

Surprise low-bidder Recreational Design & Construction, Inc., of Fort Lauderdale was awarded a $10.8 million contract to build the aquatic complex on a 4-1 vote Tuesday, with Commissioner Jill Luke in opposition because the city had not yet nailed down operational costs. That sum represented the low bid of $9.8 million, plus a 10 percent contingency.

The facility would include both a 25-yard stretch competition swimming pool suitable for most high school and college swim meets, a multi-generational, lazy river leisure pool, open and closed flume body slides and possibly a bowl slide with a plunge pool.

It is envisioned as a scaled-down version of the of the Rogers Aquatic Center -- the "Wet Willy," a three-acre water park in Rogers, Arkansas.

It will be adjacent to the Morgan Family Community Center at 6207 W. Price Blvd.

Former City Commissioner Joan Morgan, a longtime proponent of the complex, said during public comment that she couldn't wait for its completion and use as a main attraction for Project Graduation.

Once the contractor formally begins, it has 365 days to complete the pool.

Commissioners queried both General Services Director Sandy Pfundheller and consultant Peter Van Buskirk from Kimley-Horn about how Recreational Design could have underbid the other five contractors by almost $1 million.

Van Buskirk explained it's because the contractor does design-build and has its own staff for everything.

"He does have his own crew; he's not hiring a subcontractor to build the pool," Van Buskirk said.

The pool decision followed a unanimous board vote to change city ordinances to allow for new construction to pay impact fees on a deferred basis.

That came at the request of Michigan-based Lodgco Hospitality, Inc., which hopes to break ground on a Hilton-flagged hotel on U.S. 41 in North Port, just west of Sumter Boulevard.

Ruth Buchanan, economic development manager for the city, told the commission that while the market has improved since the last time city officials looked at bringing a hotel into the city, Lodgeco wanted a little help, by being allowed to pay about $115,000 on a deferred basis.

"The city will still get all of those impact fees at the end of the four years," Buchanan said.

"North Port is a new market for hotel development," she later added. "With the newness comes uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes added risks.

"I think this is a good way to meet both sides."

Mike Postle, Lodgeco's vice president of construction and project management, told the commission that the 20-year-old hotelier wanted to skip payments the first year, then pay the city in three equal installments in years two through four.

Lodgeco operates three hotels in the Sarasota area. It purchased the Hyatt Place Sarasota hotel near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in 2016 and also built a Hyatt Place in Lakewood Ranch and a Home2Suites by Hilton hotel in Nokomis.

City Commissioner Jill Luke asked how much deferring $115,000 would make for Lodgeco's financing.

Postle replied, "Where it makes a difference is with our ownership group." He added that Lodgeco conducted two market studies for North Port, and while the second one was better than the first, it still wasn't ideal.

"With that said, we believe in North Port. There are a lot of economic advantages in being first to market with a flag hotel," he added.

Allowing the $115,000 to be deferred means the owners don't have to come up with that sum up front, and it can be paid through cash flow at the hotel.

The proposed hotel, which has been linked to the Hampton Inn brand, would be between 100 and 105 rooms, with one large 2,000-square-foot meeting room that could hold about 100 people or be split with a divider.

The commission unanimously approved taking steps to allow the deferral. Once that process is in place, Lodgeco will have to come back to the commission for a formal request.

Postle said that was enough of a positive signal to take back to the investors for a decision.

Speaking in support of the hotel, commercial real estate broker Ashley Bloom said several other entities are watching the hotel as a barometer for their own investment.

"I know they're watching closely," Bloom said. "It will spur other development and other jobs."

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