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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 5, 2003 18 years ago

2004: The Year of the Arenas

The Sarasota chamber is taking the lead on a new push for a downtown conference center. It's looking for an up or down vote by spring.

2004: The Year of the Arenas

The Sarasota chamber is taking the lead on a new push for a downtown conference center. It's looking for an up or down vote by spring.

By Matt Walsh


The year 2004 is quickly taking shape as the year of arenas and conference centers in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Already, of course, there are the separate efforts of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. to construct a 7,400-seat, $46 million, privately financed sports and multipurpose arena and the Sarasota County Agricultural Fair Association Inc. to build a 7,500-seat, $54 million, public and privately financed sports and multipurpose arena on its property.

Now there's another serious entrant: The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce has started in earnest efforts to bring to fruition a 100,000- to 200,000-square-foot conference center that likely would be financed primarily by tourist taxes.

In August, the chamber board voted to endorse the idea of the chamber leading the campaign for a conference center and the lobbying for a one- or two-cent increase in the county's bed tax to fund the center's construction and operations. (The bed-tax increase will require a supermajority vote of the Sarasota County Commission.)

And in recent weeks, Tim Clark, chairman of the chamber and founder and owner of Sarasota-based Clark Advertising and Public Relations, and other chamber board members have visited Sarasota county and city commissioners and other influential business leaders to make the case that Sarasota should decide once and for all whether to construct a conference center.

Clark says the time is now because of what he called "the reality check."

"Tourism is in decline," he says. "We've had waning economic development. The politicians have realized we have an unstable tax base and that we could go into the tank very easily."

To help make the case for a conference center, the chamber has released "a white paper" entitled, "Everyone Benefits from a Downtown Sarasota Conference Center" (see box). The report portrays a gloomy assessment of the state of tourism in its opening paragraphs:

"Lamentably our tourism industry is in trouble and is losing ground to regional competitors," the paper says. "The shrinking tourism business is having a dampening effect on the local economy, and the reduced bed tax collections are starting a downward spiral in our ability to promote the area, maintain beaches and parks and sustain our arts businesses."

All three areas receive a portion of the current three-cent bed tax.

Clark says he and the chamber hope to have a decision in January on whether a conference center is feasible. Currently, the consulting firm of CS&L International is rushing to complete an $80,000 analysis for the county commission by next month. It will estimate a conference center's operating costs and income over its first 10 years and analyze potential sites.

"If the consultant says a conference center is marginal" or worse, Clark says, the chamber would cease its efforts. But if the consultant report is more positive, Clark says, the chamber will lobby for a decision from the county commission in the spring. "We're going to keep asking them - let's vote it up or down. We're hoping to come to a decision in the spring so it doesn't get caught up in the fall elections."

Clark says the new push for a conference center has received a positive response from the elected officials he has visited. Indeed, Sarasota Mayor Lou Ann Palmer told the GCBR: "I've always been very supportive of this." But Palmer and her fellow commissioners are not ready to endorse any ideas until they have more information.

Likewise with county commissioners. At a county commissioners' meeting Dec. 2, most of the commissioners indicated they needed more information before they could make decisions on either the conference center or an arena for the Sarasota County Fairgrounds.

One of the biggest hurdles for the conference center is the same hurdle facing the fairgrounds arena - financing. While fairgrounds officials have talked about receiving up to $15 million in private equity, the fairgrounds board members also acknowledge that most of the funding will require public financing, in particular a bond issue. Fairgrounds officials have also talked about tapping bed tax revenues.

That's where the two ideas are likely to collide. Asked what the chamber would say if fairgrounds officials sought a portion of the bed tax, Clark says: "We would politely disagree," adding, "But that's going to be some of the public debate."

Clark says it may be difficult for the fairgrounds to tap the bed tax revenue because the legislation that permits Sarasota to collect a bed tax has language that restricts its usage on certain facilities.

Another hurdle for a conference center is location. Three sites are mentioned most often:

× The Sarasota Quay and surrounding property;

× Sarasota's cultural district, which includes the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, a lawn bowling facility, visitors center, Florida West Coast Symphony building, municipal auditorium and parking lot;

× The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Clark says the chamber's preference is one of the downtown sites - largely because of their proximity to other hotels, the waterfront and shopping. The chamber wants to target an professional conference niche that will attract what he calls "the silk-stocking" trade - physicians, lawyers, accountants, bankers and other professionals.

The Quay site is attractive because of its waterfront and the fact two full-service hotels stand on either side of it - the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota and the Hyatt Sarasota. Clark says Quay owner Rene Gareau and Irish developer Paddy Kelly have drawn sketches of a conference center on the Quay site, but it has its challenges. One of them is the El Verona condominiums to the north. They may be subject to eminent domain to accommodate a conference center and parking lot - not an easy task.

The cultural district has its challenges as well. One is whether Sarasota citizens will support the placement of a conference center on one of its most prized bayfront sites.

Says Mayor Palmer: "My favorite would be the Quay site. But we should at least leave the possibility open for a conference center at the cultural center district. It has been suggested that maybe it can involve sharing with the Florida West Coast Symphony. I don't want to take a conference center off the cultural center master plan until we get more information."

Some of that information may emerge Jan. 8. The chamber has scheduled a public forum from 8 to 10 a.m. at the Hyatt Sarasota hotel. National experts on conference centers and their operations will address such issues as location, construction, financing and operations.


What are the benefits?

× The money spent by additional visitors in the soft seasons increases the annual pay for workers in the tourism and service industries¦

× It will increase demand for airline service to Sarasota¦

× It will increase sales tax collections to the county, bolstering income for roads, schools, general services, beach renourishment and parks¦

× The center will provide a needed affordable venue for local uses, such as high school graduations, civic meetings and charitable events, which the largest hotel ballrooms cannot accommodate now.

× The center will replenish and increase the bed tax collections used for marketing, parks and beach maintenance and the arts.

How will this be funded?

Most of the cost to build and operate the center will be paid by visitors. Generally there are four major cost areas:

× The land, which depending on the site selected, is either in public ownership or could be donated by private owners.

× The construction of the building, which can be financed by pledging the proceeds of a fourth cent on the bed tax

× Parking structure

× Operations.

For a full copy of the white paper, call the chamber, 955-8187.

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