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Hotels nearing capacity for Final Four

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Call the toll-free line for hotel reservations for the NCAA Final Four and you'll find no rooms available along Pinellas County beaches.

But if you invest a little more time and telephone individual hotels on your own, you will find a few rooms still for rent.

Some hotels already are full for the game days, March 27 and March 29, a Saturday and a Monday. Others have a few rooms open, but not many, and they don't expect to have them available for long.

"That time of the year, we're pretty busy," said Bill Shephard, owner of the 58-room Shephard's Beach Resort. "We'd be full anyway."

He said all his rooms are booked for that weekend. He said about 70 percent of the visitors are regular customers who come that time every year and about 30 percent are coming for the Final Four.

Shephard and some other hotel owners and managers on Clearwater Beach said they wish the basketball tournament could have been scheduled for January, a slower time for bookings.

Even so, some said they look forward to having a chance to show off the area to newcomers who might come back later and tell their friends.

"Generally, we'd be full anyway," that time of year, said Jack Guy, director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Sand Key Resort. Of his hotel's 390 rooms, 200 are reserved for official NCAA participants and many of the rest already are booked by fans and people on spring break.

He said he has just a few rooms left.

The Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort has "very few" of its 425 rooms still available that weekend, said Nancy Cimney, director of marketing.

The Clearwater Beach Hotel's 160 rooms all are booked for that weekend, but most of the customers are regulars who return each year. "We don't have enough rooms to deal too much with spring break," or the Final Four, manager Wallace Lee said.

The 90 rooms at the Days Inn on Clearwater Beach all are booked for that weekend, assistant manager Gus Vasi said. "Most of it is Final Four," he said.

The Flamingo and Angler motels, which have a total of 55 rooms, "are pretty full with regular customers," said one of the owners, Julie Nichols. She said she has a few rooms left, but that the two motels usually are full that time of year.

In addition to hotels, retailers, restaurants and transportation companies will benefit from the Final Four, said Kathy Rabon, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce.

Add to the Final Four traffic the visitors on spring break and some people expected to come for concerts planned in downtown Clearwater, and the area will be packed, she said.

Although the city has said it will begin construction of a $14-million traffic roundabout at the entrance to the beach in March, Rabon said she warned City Manager Mike Roberto that the construction had better not cause additional traffic delays.

"If there are additional tie-ups, we will be loudly protesting," she said. "These businesses _ hotels, retailers, restaurants on the beach _ they need the spring to make this year. Don't mess it up."