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Voters say yes to new Vinoy conference center

Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly said yes to the Renaissance Vinoy Resort's plan to build a $8.5-million, 15,000-square-foot conference center behind the downtown landmark hotel.

The hotel's management took no chances in this citywide vote, spending more than $16,000 on a campaign with no organized opposition.

For the past two weeks it also paid and dispatched its employees to busy intersections throughout the city to wave signs in support.

"I never felt comfortable that this was a slam-dunk," said Michael Stange, the resort's manager, on Tuesday night. "It was very important to us, and you just never know."

A citywide referendum might seem an odd way to proceed with new construction, but it was necessary in this case because of a 13-year-old land swap deal with the city.

Under a 1984 agreement, the city gave the Vinoy the property along Seventh Avenue NE in exchange for part of Vinoy Park.

In return, the land was to remain an open space or used only for recreation. Changing the land's use required voter approval.

Stange has said the hotel needs the conference center to help attract business groups to downtown St. Petersburg rather than to Tampa or the beaches.

Now, events are held under a tent. Under the plan, retail shops and an expanded health club would also be added.

The hotel would pay for the center, which Stange says would generate an additional $405,000 in yearly tax revenue, add $1.5-million annually to the local economy and provide 50 new jobs.

He said the next step is to begin drawing plans. He said he hopes construction can begin by late summer.