Feb. 05–Years after Wilmington began seeking a developer to build an upscale hotel next to the downtown convention center, the city council on Tuesday unanimously approved a deal for a $33.6 million Embassy Suites on the riverfront.

The deal is significant because convention center officials have long said an attached hotel is paramount to the success of the center as it attempts to draw events and conventions. The hotel deal, which was mired in delays, also was the subject of controversy in recent months as another downtown hotelier challenged the city’s sale price of the land.

Speaking before the council Tuesday, City Manager Sterling Cheatham said the convention center and attached hotel was envisioned as an economic development project.

“This is a significant milestone in the development of the northern downtown riverfront,” Cheatham said.

Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to approve two separate items to finalize the hotel deal. The first was to approve a lengthy agreement that outlines the sale of the property to the Virginia developer, Harmony Hospitality. Harmony has plans to build and operate a 186-room Embassy Suites hotel next to the center.

Once the hotel is online, Cheatham said it would be a boon for the city, which he said should receive more than $800,000 annually in taxes and parking revenue from the hotel, totaling $6.4 million over a decade.

Harmony is required to start construction within 120 days of closing on the property and must complete the hotel within two years after closing on the land. The agreement also allows Harmony to pay the city’s bulk rate to rent 250 parking spaces in the 578-space convention center parking deck for 30 years.

Additionally, the council voted to sell riverfront land to Harmony Hospitality for $578,820. The land, which is less than 1 acre, is sandwiched between the convention center, the Cape Fear River and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

Harmony’s Brooks Johnson said the groundbreaking will be in June and the hotel should be open by August 2015. The 162,000-square-foot hotel will include a restaurant and 6,600 square feet of meeting space.

In a public hearing, more than a dozen speakers representing businesses and community organizations spoke in favor of the hotel.

Susan Eaton, the general manager of the convention center, said Wilmington competes with cities that have hotels next to their centers.

“It puts us on a very unlevel playing field,” Eaton said.

Cape Fear Riverboats owner Carl Marshburn said people in other cities used to say they wanted to come to Wilmington, but there was no facility. Then the city built the convention center, which held its first event in 2010.

“What we’re hearing now is we only did half the job,” Marshburn said. “They can’t come because we don’t have the rooms. I think this convention center can be a real success but we need these rooms to go with it.”

Former councilman Ron Sparks summed up the years of delays to get the hotel finalized when he said Etta James had a song — “At last.”

A sole speaker, Wilmington attorney Matthew Davis, urged the council to either reject the deal or table it. He represents Sotherly Hotels Inc., the owner of the Hilton Wilmington Riverside.

Davis, who started raising concerns about the hotel deal last year, again asserted Tuesday that the city’s agreement with Harmony violated a 2006 court ruling.

“I believe that these proposed agreements are leading the city headlong into trouble,” Davis said before the vote. (The city has maintained the agreement follows that 2006 ruling).

Julian March: 343-2099

On Twitter: @julian_march