Developer of proposed convention center looking at county ownership to receive bed-tax funds

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From The Gainesville Sun

Despite assurances that a new convention center and hotel would draw more and larger events to Gainesville, Chamber of Commerce leaders faced mixed reactions from hoteliers and others who said at a Wednesday meeting that more information is needed about whether the project would help or hurt other hotels and meeting venues.

During the county's Tourist Development Council meeting at the Thomas Center, the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce's Conference Center Champions group presented a proposal for NP International of Minnesota to build a 53,000-square-foot convention center in its West 38 project to host larger events than current facilities can accommodate.

NP International has completed a parking garage and started building roads and utilities infrastructure in West 38, a previously undeveloped area west of the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center. Student apartments are going up.

The Chamber has been involved in the project from the beginning. Chamber Chairman Mitch Glaeser began making the case for a larger convention center a year ago, touting the benefits an increase in visitors would bring to other businesses. Shortly thereafter, the Chamber started meeting with the developer and recently formed the champions group to promote the project and advise the developer.

John Pricher, interim director of Visit Gainesville, recommended that the project come before the Tourist Development Council before support is officially sought from the Alachua County Commission. The council is an appointed board that makes recommendations to the County Commission about projects funded by the 5 percent tourist development tax -- or bed tax -- charged on hotel rooms.

County Commissioner Susan Baird, the commission representative on the tourist council, said representatives for the developer met with her and the other commissioners individually to propose that the project receive bed tax funds collected from the hotel at West 38 and the nearby Hilton that would stand to benefit from overflow crowds.

Former Visit Gainesville Director Roland Loog pointed out at Wednesday's meeting that bed tax money by state law can only be used on a publicly owned facility.

Bed tax funds have been used on county-owned convention centers such as those in Orlando, Miami, Tampa and Destin.

Loog helped arrange meetings about the project last year when he was still with Visit Gainesville and said he didn't want to see the project delayed by wasting time on the bed tax issue.

Brent Reynolds, managing partner of NP International, told The Sun on Friday that they would transfer ownership to the county while holding the contract to manage the center.

“Through our team of affiliates we have managed facilities like this before,” he said. “We feel comfortable doing this and feel comfortable from our market knowledge that we would succeed.”

Council member Lori Pennington-Gray said she would need to see a new study with specifics about who would use the convention center before she could support the project.

A 2009 consultant's report commissioned by the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency determined that Gainesville was missing out on more than 65,000 hotel room nights and 130 meetings lost to cities with larger facilities.

Pennington-Gray, an associate professor in the University of Florida Department of Tourism, Recreation and Sport Management, said the hotel situation has changed since 2009 with more hotels opening.

Megan Eckdahl, director of sales for the Hampton Inn on Archer Road, said she wanted to make sure that events would come when hotels are not already full such as during Gator football home games.

While hotels are full then, average occupancy is 60 percent and Eckdahl said two other new hotels are in the works in addition to the one planned at West 38.

“For all of us I think we would love to have a convention center here,” she said. “I do agree we need more research.”

Reynolds told the Sun that NP International has done its own analysis that it will turn over to the Chamber in another week and will hire a consultant study the market further.

Council Vice Chairman Ron Gromoll, who is general manager of the Best Western Plus Gateway Grand, said he wants to know if the convention center would draw smaller meetings also.

“If it's divided up and attracts business for 300 rooms or 100 rooms, it would steal from existing facilities like mine and the Hilton and the Paramount and the Holiday Inn, and it's just going to hurt the facilities and the community, so I think how it's built is a big question mark as far as whether it's needed or not,” he said.

Reynolds said the center would focus on larger events.

“It's not envisioned what you see at the Hampton or even the Hilton will be shifted to this facility. It's too large in nature,” he said. “All existing meeting rooms and meeting space that the other hotels attract would retain that source of revenue.”

The developer had planned to build two six- to eight-story office buildings on the site of the potential convention center before starting talks with the Chamber and meeting planners.

“What's nice is they stopped and asked us, instead of these two class-A office buildings, would we prefer a conference center, and they're looking for our engagement in terms of if we want it, how we want it,” said businessman Eric Godet, chairman of the chamber group. “They're only going to do it if we want it because they already have their plans and they're quite fine going on with their office buildings.”

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Virginia MacKoul

Virginia is a graduate from the University of Florida's College of Design Construction and Planning with a degree in Sustainability and the Built Environment, and a minor in Urban Regional Planning. Virginia joined the Front Street team in 2011, as an intern. Upon graduation, Virginia joined the Front Street team full-time as the Director of Client Services. Ms. MacKoul’s addition furthers Front Street’s continued growth and expansion within Gainesville and other North Central Florida markets. She was promoted to Director of Marketing in 2014 and now manages the firm’s team of interns and oversees all marketing and branding activity. Virginia was born in Boston and moved to Lee County, Florida in 1997. Virginia graduated her high school's International Baccalaureate program and started at the University of Florida with a focus on Architecture. Virginia shares Front Street's passion of giving back to the community and those in need. Virginia's hobbies include photography, cooking, football, movies, music, and spending time with her dog, Brinkley.

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