Brevard County commissioners seem open to giving hotel company a $30M marketing grant
A controversial proposal to grant up to $30 million to a major hotel company to market a planned new resort and conference center on Cocoa Beach that was all but shot down by Brevard County's tourism advisory board, received a far less chilly reception from Brevard County commissioners.
Commission Chair Kristine Zonka, Vice Chair Curt Smith and Commissioner Rita Pritchett were all overly positive about the idea, when they discussed it during a recent County Commission meeting on zoning issues.
None, however, went as far as saying they definitely would vote for the proposal when it comes up again for a possible vote at their July 19 meeting.
The fourth sitting commissioner — John Tobia — said he was "very skeptical" about the proposal by the developer, Driftwood Capital, and wants to hear the Brevard County Tourist Development Council's recommendation before he makes up his mind. Tobia was not at the commission meeting where Driftwood made its presentation, but later watched a video of the meeting.
Most TDC members have been opposed to Driftwood's proposal, and they could take a formal vote on it at a July 6 special meeting called by TDC Chairman Tom Hermansen.
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The Tourist Development Council is an advisory board to the County Commission, and regardless of what it decides, Driftwood can get what it wants by winning the support of three members of the County Commission.
Pritchett is the Brevard County Commission's representative to the Tourist Development Council, and appears to be the most supportive of the idea.
"I thought this was pretty creative," Pritchett said during County Commission discussion of the Driftwood proposal. "I thought that was just a great idea."
What is the hotel developer's proposal?
Driftwood Capital — which is developing a proposed $388 million Westin Cocoa Beach Resort & Spa off State Road A1A — wants to use up to $30 million over a 30-year period from what the hotel will generate from Brevard County's 5% tourist development tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals for its own marketing.
This marketing would include promoting the hotel and an adjacent conference center, as well as promoting Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast in general as good places to hold a convention or other business conference.
The 502-room resort hotel and conference center would feature 11 food and beverage venues, a spa, three swimming pools, a fitness center, multiple retail locations, and a multistory parking garage to accommodate about 800 vehicles. The complex also would include about 50,000 square feet of indoor conference space and about 70,000 square feet of outdoor conference space.
Most members of the nine-person Tourist Development Council on May 25 indicated opposition to Driftwood's proposal, both because of the $30 million grant amount and the proposed 30-year time frame. But they took no formal vote at that meeting, after Pritchett and Driftwood officials encouraged them to take more time, and get their questions answered.
Driftwood is asking the county to allow it to use up to $1 million a year for 30 years from Tourist Development Tax collections at its hotel for its marketing efforts, which they say also will include marketing the Space Coast as a destination.
To get the full $1 million in a given year, the hotel would have to generate at least $2 million from the hotel tax — something Driftwood officials say is achievable. If the hotel does not reach that threshold in a given year, Driftwood's proposal calls for it to receive 50% of what is generated for marketing.
The Westin would replace the Driftwood-owned International Palms Resort, which would be torn down to make way for the Westin.
Driftwood has a high-powered local lobbying team working on its behalf, including former Brevard County Commissioner Robin Fisher, former Brevard County Attorney Scott Knox and attorney/lobbyist Kendall Moore.
Driftwood Chief Financial Officer Glenn Wasserman presented the proposal to the three county commissioners in attendance at their May 26 meeting, detailing how the "4½-star, upper-upscale" Westin would "transform the area into a premier destination for conventions."
"We believe this project warrants economic support from the county," Wasserman said, adding that the county's financial support for the project is crucial for Driftwood to attract investors, who might otherwise shy away from the project because of its relatively high cost of $772,908 per room.
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Brevard County Commission seemspositive about proposal
The three county commissioners came across as very supportive of Driftwood's proposal.
Pritchett maintained that the $30 million marketing grant to Driftwood "doesn't hurt the county" because more tourist tax revenue would be coming into the county after Driftwood replaces International Palms, even with the $30 million going toward Driftwood's marketing at a rate of up to $1 million a year.
Pritchett said she is "always looking for those opportunities" to attract more tourists to the Space Coast, yet the Tourist Development Council was "ready to just vote and shoot it down," just before she asked for the vote to be delayed.
"So this is all new dollars," Pritchett said. "This is going to really be good for the economy, and what I really like about it the most is this really isn't a risk for the county. I'm liking this right now."
Smith said he believes the Westin project could do for Cocoa Beach what the Fontainebleau hotel did for revitalizing Miami Beach after that hotel opened in 1954.
"At this point, I think that we're taking the right step" by advancing the proposal to the July agenda, Smith said. "The very first time I heard it, I said: 'Wow.' I just said: 'It's a game-changer.' A rising tide raises all ships, and that's what this thing can do."
Zonka said "If someone can produce for me a project that's a $300 million investment, I'm all ears on hearing about what we can do as a commission or as a board to help them. I don't think this is picking winners and losers."
Zonka emphasized that she isn't necessarily "100% on board right now. But, so far, I like what I've seen, and I like the idea of bringing something like this to Brevard County."
After the meeting, Wasserman said: “All of the commissioners expressed excitement in the project. We heard many comments from them reiterating that this project is a real game-changer for the region, thereby justifying county support. In short, we appreciate the commissioners’ open-minded attitude and willingness to explore this further, and look forward to meeting with them again in July."
Two speakers opposed the proposal during the commission meeting — hotelier Bob Baugher and former Cocoa Beach Mayor Janice Scott.
Scott said the County Commission should not "pick winners and losers, or single out one entity over another. I suggest that you take the TDC's advice. They are not in favor of doing this."
Baugher said the marketing of Space Coast tourism should stay within the purview of the county's Office of Tourism, without marketing money being siphoned off to one hotel developer. Baugher is an owner or partner in four hotels in the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral area, with more under construction or planned.
Dave Berman is business editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Berman at email@example.com. Twitter: @bydaveberman.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard County Commission is open to Westin hotel marketing grant