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Council vote boosts hotel plan

After 12 years and three mayors, big talk and empty promises, Tampa is as close as it's ever been to a convention center hotel.

The City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a development agreement between the city and one of the country's top hotel chains. Under the plan, which was hailed as "the best deal yet," Host Marriott Corp. will finance and build a 26-story glass tower that will rise from the banks of the Garrison Channel between the Ice Palace and the Tampa Convention Center.

"This is a great day in Tampa," Mayor Dick Greco said Thursday. "This hotel is going to start an avalanche for all the things we need."

The city's only obligation is to lease space in and around the new hotel, which will cost Tampa $32-million during the next 20 years. Marriott promises to break ground in March and finish the 708-room hotel by the end of the century.

Developers and politicians patted each other on the back Thursday, swapped business cards and joked about the spoiled hotel deals of yesteryear. At the back of the council chambers, dressed in a plain gray suit, was Bob Martinez, former Tampa mayor and governor of Florida.

"It's terrific," said Martinez, who began trying to get a convention hotel for Tampa in 1985 when he was mayor. "Dick Greco has made development an important part of his agenda. He's getting done what I started." Since those first efforts, other city leaders have seen several potential hotel deals fall through.

Now, in offices across downtown Tampa, the Marriott plan is seen as a rainmaker. City officials say it will help revitalize the Channel District. Contractors are crossing their fingers for a piece of the $100-million construction project. And employment agencies and others look forward to 550 new jobs in Tampa.

Tourism specialists are extra excited about the prospects of a new hotel near the convention center, which they say will never live up to its potential to attract lucrative, large groups without a big hotel nearby.

With the new hotel, the total number of hotel rooms available to convention delegates in downtown Tampa would increase from 1,000 to 1,500.

Since Marriott first put down a deposit on land in July, the project has moved swiftly through initial site studies and on to governmental approval.

The only snag came during a spat with a potential competitor. Three weeks ago, an attorney for the group that wanted to build a rival Hilton hotel near the proposed Marriott site had claimed that a Marriott executive intimidated a contractor to back out of the proposed Hilton project. The attorney, J. Stephen Gardner, had hinted at a lawsuit, which could have delayed or scuttled Marriott's plans to build the hotel.

Those contingencies evaporated this week when Gardner announced his team was dropping the issue.

"We decided that we want to help the city, not hinder it," Gardner said earlier this week. "Marriott has done a lot of work on this project. It looks like their deal will go forward."

Marriott executives credit the mayor for helping drive the deal.

"This project moved to the top of our list because of the mayor's commitment," said Marriott executive James Riseolo.

The vote Thursday gave initial approval to the hotel's zoning, which is expected to receive final approval in two weeks. After that, the only issues remaining are building permits and closing on the land, which shouldn't be a problem because Marriott has secured the 3-acre site from Chavez Properties of Ohio with a $250,000 deposit.

One of the few points of discussion over the development agreement Thursday centered on the possibility of gambling at the future convention hotel. In the end, City Council members persuaded Marriott to agree to a clause in the development order that prohibits gambling at any time at the convention hotel, even if it becomes legal for other hotels in the city.

On Thursday, the mayor was so confident that Marriott would build the hotel he said he was willing to bet $100 on it.

"And I'll give you odds," Greco said. "This hotel is going to happen. There's too many commitments for it to fall through."

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