Broward County, Fla., Moves to Build Convention Center Hotel

After Harley-Davidson held a large gathering at the Broward County Convention Center a few years ago, the group said it wouldn't be back anytime soon.

The motorcyclists didn't complain about the food, sunny skies or the airport. The problem: no hotel at the convention center.

Fears of losing similar lucrative conventions prompted the Broward County Commission Tuesday to take the first official steps toward resurrecting an effort to build a hotel at the convention center after a similar deal failed a few years ago.

Commissioners voted to seek letters of interest from firms for a $500,000 master plan and to carve out the convention center and future hotel from the security zone at Port Everglades.

Unlike a similar effort in the 1990s, the county won't require that the 750-room hotel be developed and managed by a minority-owned firm, although minority businesses are expected to get some of the work from the estimated $300 million project.

County officials say they are losing millions of dollars because they can't bid on the one third of convention business that requires a hotel on site. Plus, the county loses out to other customers who don't require a hotel on site but prefer one.

In Broward, convention guests are scattered at several nearby hotels.

Last year, the convention center took in about $1.2 million more than its expenses. But county officials say to stay competitive, they need to attract more conventions.

County officials envision a hotel with at least 750 rooms at 17th Street and Eisenhower. Later, the county plans a second expansion of the Convention Center, which opened in 1991 and expanded in 2001. They hope that the first visitors will stay in the new hotel in three to four years.

That would mean convention center guests would no longer have to wait in line to have their identification checked by security. A wall or fence would separate the hotel and convention center from the Port.

The county will likely give some sort of public financing to the developer. That might mean donating land for the project or using its borrowing power to finance it. In order to block off rooms for the convention center at a reduced rate, the hotel will need public money to make it feasible, county Administrator Roger Desjarlais said.

County officials have tried to get a convention center hotel since the 1990s. In 1997, black residents threatened a tourist boycott unless the county approved a hotel developed by an African-American. Later that year, the county awarded R. Donahue Peebles a contract to build a hotel. But his partners, including the National Baptist Convention, later withdrew and the project fell apart.

In June, the Fourth District Court of Appeal sided with the county by upholding an earlier ruling that Peebles is not entitled to development expenses.

Years ago, nearby hoteliers fought the proposal for a convention center hotel, fearing the competition. But now that hotels are filling their rooms at high rates, they would rather fill rooms at market price than block off so many rooms at reduced rates for conventions.

Murray Lowe, general manager of the Fort Lauderdale Marina Marriott across the street from the convention center, said the majority of the hotel owners support the project.

"This is an overdue decision. We must build a convention center hotel," Lowe said. "It just gives more flexibility to the properties to sell for themselves."

(c) 2005 Associated Press