PALMETTO -- There was too much competition in the room when Manatee County purchasing officials, the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency and the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau held an informational meeting for anyone interested in building a hotel next to the convention center in Palmetto.
The meeting was meant to answer any questions developers, engineers and architects have about the project or the invitation-to-negotiate process. But when the floor opened up for questions, no hands went up and, by the end, only one voice was heard.
"Usually, the developers don't say anything because they don't want the competition to know what they're thinking," said Jeff Burton, director of Palmetto's Community Redevelopment Agency. "They're in an information-collection mode right now. Some may have strategically decided not to come today."
Manatee County's Purchasing Division sent the invitation-to-negotiate packet to nine known hotel suppliers Sept. 3. According to the attendance sheet at the meeting, no representatives from the nine suppliers were present Wednesday.
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Only Ahluwalia Harhbhajan, who goes by Harry Walia, from Venetian Development asked any questions. He wanted to know why the city of Palmetto is involved if the hotel is a Manatee County project. Walia is a former Venice mayoral candidate and his self-described "silent partner," Govin Rajan, has bought and sold property in Manatee County for more than two decades.
Between the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency, Manatee County and the state of Florida, there are numerous economic incentives available, Burton said. For example, the potential hotel sites are within Florida Department of Environmental Protection Brownfield Area boundaries. Brownfield area developers receive incentives as long as the company creates at least 10 full-time jobs with benefits and demonstrates a fixed-use capital investment of $2 million, among other requirements.
The brownfield incentive "shall not be used by itself and is valid only as a complement to the other applicable incentives," according to a document distributed at the meeting. "Other applicable incentives" include parking and redevelopment incentives, which city of Palmetto staff must approve.
Burton also explained the city of Palmetto's partnership with Manatee County and how the partnership should make various permitting processes easier on developers.
"It's already been future land-used," Burton said. "It just waits to be zoned. The zoning that the city would like to zone it is about as flexible as it comes."
But Walia's questions continued.
"For 29 years, I have heard, you are not able to do a hotel," Walia said. "So what makes you think now that you are able to do it? Most of this has to do with politics. So how will you reassure us?"
Nearby residential communities, such as Riviera Dunes, have expressed concerns about the project. Burton assured Walia this time around Riviera Dunes residents expressed their full support.
"Although we objected to the hotel proposed for 120 Riviera Dunes Way in 2013, we fully support a hotel for the Convention Center, as well as compatible development of the other undeveloped parcels in Riviera Dunes," said Fred Sperry, president of the Bel Mare Condominium Association, in an email to Burton and other officials dated Sept. 12. The association agreed to add a parcel at 222 Haben Blvd. to the list of potential hotel sites.
The meeting addressed other potential developer concerns about room block agreements and gave an overview of the first addendum to the invitation-to-negotiate packet. The addendum included the Riviera Dunes letter, information about what ItWorks! brings to the Bradenton area and a question by a hotel brokerage firm, who asked if Manatee County will pay their agency fee.
"We encourage them and their development partner to respond to the ITN; however, the county will not be able to pay any agency fees," said Christine Pearson, Manatee County contracts negotiator.
A sample room block agreement was distributed, spelling out what the county's rights and the hotel owner's rights will be based on how far in advance the event is requesting to book.
County and city officials and developers then took a tour of the Bradenton Area Convention Center led by Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau. Falcione highlighted the center's capability to host conventions and elaborated on the strength of the bureau.
"You're partnering with a team that really understands how we promote the destination for tourism," Falcione said. "We're excited to form this partnership and find a balanced relationship that creates a win-win situation."
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.