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IT'S UPHILL FOR THE UPSCALE

The luxury condo-hotel project will open on Clearwater Beach amid belt tightening.

Men on stilts fill seams in the main hallway's drywall. Wires hang from doorway frames like upside-down question marks. Workers fill planters on the pool deck with soil for soaring palm trees standing nearby.

Three months from its scheduled Dec. 7 opening, the long-awaited Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa on Clearwater Beach is taking shape.

Sales staff and Pinellas County tourism promoters are pitching the 250-suite luxury resort to convention and meeting planners. Late last month, Hyatt Hotels put rooms up for sale to the public for occupancy starting Feb. 1 with nightly rates ranging from $310 to $735.

"It will bring a whole new customer that hasn't been here before," says D.T. Minich, Pinellas County's tourism director.

Customers will include 80,000 Hyatt loyalty program members, meetings of corporations with Hyatt Hotels contracts and families that like to stay in hotel suites with kitchens.

It won't be all smooth sailing. Corporate belt tightening has strangled business travel nationally and in Tampa Bay. Leisure and small-business travelers are trading down to more modest lodging.

"It's not the best time" to open a hotel, says Abe Pizam, dean of the Rosen School of Hospitality at the University of Central Florida. "The next two years are going to be rough."

Hyatt manages the resort built by NJR Development. The project, also known as the Aqualea Resort and Condominium Hotel, was structured for individuals to buy suites as vacation getaways for up to 60 days, with rentals the rest of the year. NJR has had a rocky road selling the suites as the condominium market crashed over the last two years.

Just 53 of the 250 hotel units, selling for $470,000 to $1.25 million, are under contract, said Neil Rauenhorst, president of NJR. He expects selling the rest will take three years.

One of 18 large residences, which are priced from $1.9 million to $5.5 million for two penthouses, is under contract. The rest go back on the market in the spring, he said.

Business at Clearwater Beach hotels is down slightly from last year, Rauenhorst says. But they remain among the best performing in the state, he says.

Only 36 upper-upscale hotels opened in the United States in the last years, according to Smith Travel Research. The Hyatt will be this area's first in that class since the Westin Tampa Bay on Rocky Point opened in January.

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THE RESORT

Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa on Clearwater Beach is a 250-suite luxury resort. The project was structured for individuals to buy suites as vacation getaways for up to 60 days, with rentals the rest of the year.

- THE PRICING

Nightly rates are from $310 to $735. Fifty-three of the 250 units, selling for $470,000 to $1.25 million, are under contract. One of 18 large residences, priced from $1.9 million to $5.5 million for two penthouses, is under contract.

- WHAT'S NEXT

The resort is scheduled to open Dec. 7. "It's not the best time" to open a hotel, says Abe Pizam, dean of the Rosen School of Hospitality at the University of Central Florida. "The next two years are going to be rough."

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