Lack of hotels stymie business growth, Manatee commissioners say

jsalman@bradenton.comAugust 3, 2012 

BRADENTON -- Manatee County commissioners put out a call to all hoteliers Thursday -- "We need more beds."

A shortage of available rooms in northern portions of the county and the absence of a signature luxury hotel is creating a competitive disadvantage in the commission's hunt to land new businesses.

They say companies instead are having to book nights in Sarasota or Lakewood Ranch to accommodate incoming corporate travellers and guests seeking luxury accommodations comparable to Ritz Carlton.

To plug that revenue leak, the county now is finalizing a request for proposal to vendors interested in building a new hotel on public property adjacent to the civic center in Palmetto -- an idea that has been discussed for half a decade.

"The economy is starting to turn around, and this is something we need to work on before these people go elsewhere," Commissioner Donna Hayes said. "We don't have anything with a high capacity. It's very restrictive."

Thursday's discussion was spawned by a recent conversation between Commissioner Carol Whitmore and Feld Entertainment -- a massive area firm that produces live touring shows including the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Disney On Ice, Monster Jam, and other motor sports events.

Now based in Palmetto, Feld is in the process of mov

ing into an expanded production facility just a few miles down the road on a 47-acre campus in Ellenton. The company plans to bring 235 new jobs along for the ride.

Phase one of that transition is expected to be completed in January. There's only one problem: a lack of available hotels in the immediate proximity has strained Feld's plans.

During show rehearsals, the company will have as many as 200 performers and support staff visiting the area for five weeks at a time.

Those workers now are staying at hotels near the outlet mall and in Lakewood Ranch -- forcing Feld to absorb the added costs of transportation, said Scott Dickerson, the company's vice president of Florida operations.

"There's really nothing in proximity to this property," Dickerson said. "We would like to partner with someone to do some development."

Ironically, Buffalo Lodging Associates, LLC announced Thursday it was opening a Lakewood Park hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott Sarasota/University Park by the end of August. The four-story, 134-room hotel will be located at 8305 Tourist Centre Drive, about a mile from Lakewood Ranch.

Other major employers in the Manatee, including Tropicana and IMG Academy, now have to send guests to Sarasota due to a lack of four- or five-star luxury rooms available, commissioners said.

The $15 million face-lift to turn a blighted downtown Bradenton building commonly known as the Pink Palace into a 115-room Hampton Inn & Suites is slated to begin soon.

But that still doesn't satisfy the quality commissioners are hoping for.

"We really need to work on getting a signature hotel," Commissioner Joe McClash said. "If you don't have rooms, you're really sending businesses a message that you don't want that business right now."

There's presently about 6,200 rooms available in Manatee's short-term rental pool. That's compared to 14,000 in Sarasota and 40,000 in Pinellas.

Hotel occupancy rates at the height of spring tourism season increased an average of 9.4 percent over the same time last year, peaking at 90.6 percent in March, when average daily rates of $173.20 also were at their highest.

But during the slow summer months, vacancies can become a common problem, slipping to as low as 60 percent. Some existing hoteliers warn against oversaturating the market.

"Short-term we could be shooting ourselves in the foot," said Rob Ferguson, director of sales for Kinsman Resorts, which operates at Holiday Inn and Fairfield Inn at Lakewood Ranch. "When a company looks at developing a piece of land, you have to look at the feasibility studies. For the most part, ours show it's not feasible right now. If another hotel is built a little premature, that's going to affect our occupancies."

As an uptick in sports tourism and efforts to attract more corporate travel pulls guests away from the beaches, officials say the demand will be there.

As commissioners finalize an RFP for a hotel near the civic center in Palmetto, a $6.5 million upgrade at the civic center is nearing completion.

"The time is now," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "The best thing we can do as a business is to diversify our product, and that's what we're doing."

A similar partnership was established in 2010 between the owner of the Holiday Inn and a private convention center near the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.

While each helped push businesses to the other, revenue remains slow from the recession, said Oscar Parsons, owner of the Sarasota Bradenton International Convention Center.

"They have been trying to do this for years," he said of the county. "They just can't get it done."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman

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