City Tries to Attract Developers to Downtown Conference Center

The City of Gainesville is testing the waters to see if private developers are interested in building a downtown hotel and conference center—possibly with the city’s help.

The city’s “invitation to negotiate” comes two years after the city advertised for proposals for a publicly owned conference center in conjunction with a privately owned hotel failed to generate a viable proposal.

The city commission authorized the new exploration. Outgoing Commissioner Sherwin Henry, the biggest advocate of the project, says the assumptions in feasibility studies conducted by PKF Consulting and Global Spectrum in 2010 are still valid.

“The economic climate is better than it was two years ago,” Henry says. “I’m confident that there are developers ready to invest.”

PKF said in its report that enough market demand existed in the Gainesville area to justify an additional 250-room hotel with 25,000 to 30,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 10,000-square-foot ballroom.

A hotel and conference center could generate $22.5 million in direct spending annually, according to Global Spectrum.

The project would create jobs, Henry says. “It is important that we bring service jobs to our community. We must produce jobs covering all levels of employment.”

In 2010, the city was hoping to convince the Alachua County Commission to devote a portion of its tourist development tax to the conference center. The county decided to use that money for a new fairgrounds at the time, but the fairgrounds project hasn’t moved forward and municipalities throughout the county are vying for the money for their own projects.

The one cent of “bed tax” that is available for new capital projects is accumulating at a rate of $625,000 a year, says Roland Loog, director of the Alachua County Visitors and Convention Bureau. Loog is cautious about the potential for a convention center. “I would want to be sure that it would have enough additional meeting space to bring in conventions that the Hilton and the Paramount can’t handle,” he says. “I’m also concerned about the burden of ongoing operational costs.”

In its new request to developers, the city doesn’t indicate that tourist tax dollars would be available for the projects. The request does say that the city may get involved in some way, possibly through money generated by the Community Redevelopment Agency. The CRA provides money for projects from funds generated by increased tax valuation of targeted areas.

The request stated that the 124-room Downtown Hampton Inn & Suites could provide rooms for people attending conventions at the convention center.

In 2010, the city proposed placing the project on a parking lot located on Southwest Second Street. The new request expands the potential sites to an area bordered by Eighth Avenue on the north and Depot Avenue on the south and west to 10th Street.

The deadline for response to the city’s request is April 5.

“As a destination, we need significantly more accommodations,” Henry says. “I’m glad the city is pursing this. We used to talk ourselves out of opportunities.”

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