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Hotel's backers ponder next move

For proponents of a convention center hotel, there is no Plan B _ yet.

After Tampa's City Council voted Thursday against borrowing $141-million to finance a headquarters hotel for the convention center, city and business leaders were hard-pressed to decide what to do next.

Said John Dunn, spokesman for Mayor Sandy Freedman, "Right now we don't have a rabbit to pull out of the hat."

Robert Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association, urged community leaders to put aside differences and put their heads together on alternatives.

The council's 4-3 vote stunned many. In June it had voted 6-1 in favor of the project, provided that a feasibility study and a report on the hotel's tax-exempt status were favorable. They were.

But some City Council members changed their votes after five hours of public comment and debate Thursday.

"The vote doesn't change the fact that we have to have a convention hotel to make the convention center a success," said Donald I. Barber, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "

Officials of the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association have argued that a headquarters hotel would help the center land larger events, with 2,500 to 6,000 delegates. It currently hosts conferences in the 1,500-to-3,500 range, said Tony Delgado, the center's marketing manager.

Bay area hoteliers _ in a rare break with the convention and visitors association _ argued that a publicly backed 905-room hotel wasn't necessary. It would cut into their business, depressing room rates and unnecessarily imperiling millions of tax dollars, they argued.

Without a hotel, future convention bookings already look bleak. For 1995, the center will have 33 groups booking a total of 73,309 room nights at area hotels. Typically, a good year means 30 bookings or more, said Jim Clark, executive director of the convention and visitors association.

But things worsen from there. For 1996, the center has signed 20 groups needing 69,380 room nights. And for 1997 it has signed only 11 groups with 51,453 room nights. Room nights are a calculation of the number of rooms booked and nights needed.

About 97 percent of the groups that have snubbed Tampa have told the convention and visitors association they need at least 800 rooms at one hotel, according to the association.

The hotel would have opened in April 1997, but convention salespeople have not used that as a selling point, Delgado said. Nevertheless, some groups have been following Tampa's hotel story.

"We've had one or two groups who were ready to go if we got" a hotel, Clark said.

Tampa still has a few options, others say.

Said Barber: "Now, there are two possibilities: You have to either look to see if there is a way to make the proposition more appealing, or go out and find another way to get someone to build the hotel."

Bay area hoteliers said they have a possible plan of action:

See what happens to the Nov. 8 ballot proposition on casino gambling. At least one group has said that a downtown casino hotel is possible. Many greet that with skepticism, however.

Add a stop on the downtown People Mover so that the Hyatt Regency and the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel can be connected to the convention center.

Strike a definitive deal between managers of existing downtown hotels and convention bookers, securing necessary rooms for future conferences.

And let the hotel and motel association help Tampa attract a privately financed hotel project, said the association's Morrison.

Dennis O'Flannery, general manager of the Hyatt, explained, "We're not saying we don't want a hotel. We didn't want the city in the hotel business. We didn't want an unfair playing field and didn't want to pay taxes on it."

Political and business leaders scoffed at the scheme.

"It's a nice thought to have the private sector build a hotel, but we've been waiting for that one for eight years," Dunn said.

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