In a surprising turnaround, Tampa's City Council voted Thursday not to finance construction of a $141-million hotel next door to the city's convention center.
In doing so, they declined to take on a project that private hotel companies shied away from, but that proponents hailed as a keystone project in Tampa's future.
Mayor Sandy Freedman and her staff had touted the deal as a calculated risk that would pay off with unprecedented convention activity for downtown, and possible profit for taxpayers. And for several months, a majority of council members had gone along.
But on Thursday, moments before the 4-3 vote, council member Eddie Caballero said the hotel project "should be done by private enterprise."
Joining Caballero were council members Rudy Fernandez, Joe Greco and Perry Harvey Jr.
Council members Ronnie Mason, Scott Paine and Linda Saul-Sena voted for the project. Paine said "I believe on the balance this project will be successful."
Saul-Sena said it would promote economic development, and Mason agreed.
After the vote, Mayor Sandy Freedman attributed the defeat to a lack of political courage by some council members who face re-election in March. Council members' objections had been answered months ago, she claimed.
The vote came after a five-hour hearing during which pro- and anti-hotel forces faced off with bar graphs and visitor forecasts. As cellular phones chirped in the audience, operators of local private hotels stepped to the microphone to say a city-operated hotel would siphon off their business.
"A bad deal is a nightmare for every property in town" said Robert Morrison, director of the Hillsborough Hotel & Motel Association.
Soft-drink executive Harry Teasley showed council members the results of a poll he commissioned, which found a majority of city residents disagreed with the idea of a city-financed hotel.
But backers argued that a 905-room hotel finally would make the 4-year-old convention center usable by the nation's largest conventions, and that all hotels would benefit as a result.
Jim Clark, director of the Tampa/Hillsborough visitor and convention bureau, held up a list of what he said were 1,000 groups that had spurned the convention center because of inadequate hotel facilities.
Conventioneers were anticipated to be among the visitors to the aquarium, hockey arena, entertainment complex and cruise ship terminal planned along the Garrison Channel.
On the other hand, pro-casino forces earlier this week urged the city to hold off, suggesting that if voters approve casino gambling Nov. 8, casino interests probably would build their own giant hotel downtown.
After the hours of testimony, council members were relatively brief in summing up their positions Thursday.
Greco, the council chairman, said he decided to vote against the deal because hotel revenues were uncertain and the project "puts the total burden on the city and the taxpayer."
Harvey said the hotel would constitute unfair competition with local hotels because tax exemptions meant it would not "play by the same rules."
And Fernandez, who has consistently opposed the project, said "we weren't elected to take risks with taxpayer dollars."
Mayor Sandy Freedman, who was in upstate New York on a previously-planned vacation, said by telephone that council members' objections had been answered back in June, when the council voted 6-1 in favor of the project. Fernandez was the sole no vote.
"The reasons they cited for not going forward should have been raised back (then)," Freedman said. " . . . What has changed is we've gotten closer to an election."
Thursday's vote was supposed to turn on only two issues, Freedman said: a report from Coopers & Lybrand, and word on a tax exemption from Property Appraiser Ron Alderman.
The report was favorable, and Alderman's office said Thursday that the project legally could qualify for an exemption, though one could not be assured until after an application was filed and reviewed. The council could have made its approval of the hotel financing contingent on Alderman's eventual exemption.
"We've been at it so long . . . dozens and dozens of briefings," Freedman said. "My staff has been magnificent, they worked weekends and nights. I just don't think certain members have acted responsibly."
By voting down the project now, Freedman said, council members risked lawsuits from the other parties in the project: developer Kilroy Industries, hotel franchiser Marriott, and manager Buena Vista Hospitality Group.
"I have to believe (council members) never understood what they were doing, which is kind of frightening, or they understood and they don't care whether they put the city at risk," Freedman said. "Or they didn't have the political courage to go forward when faced with some resistance."
"I have no plans for bringing this proposal or any other proposal for a hotel back before the council," said Freedman, who is barred by law from running for re-election in March.
"The private sector and the entire community will not be able to reap economic benefits for everyone, which is why we were doing it in the first place."
Among those who spoke out against the hotel were:
Hyatt Regency Westshore President Heinz Gartlgruber, who mentioned "unfair competition."
American Family Association member David Caton, who said it was "fundamentally wrong" for taxpayers to have their money risked on the project.
Resident J. B. Hooper, who was concerned about "the arrogance of government" in such projects.
Joe Rousselle, who said that he, as a taxpayer, didn't want to be "holding the bag."
Among those speaking in favor of the project were:
City Finance Director Bob Harrell, who labeled the project "economically viable" and said that if 1890s-era Tampa Bay Hotel developer Henry B. Plant were still alive, he would "offer his endorsement."
Tampa Electric Co. chairman Timothy Guzzle, who said the hotel would have a favorable impact on the city.