$30 Million OK County Marketing Grant

On Tuesday, Brevard County commissioners — ignoring the recommendation of its own advisory board — approved a controversial proposal to award up to $30 million to the developer behind the future Westin Cocoa Beach Resort & Spa.

The vote was 3-1. County Commission Chair Kristine Zonka, Vice Chair Curt Smith and Commissioner Rita Pritchett voted in favor of the grant. The only vote against was that of Commissioner John Tobia.

Money for the developer, Driftwood Capital, will come from up to half of the revenue Westin expects to generate from the county’s 5% tourism development tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals. The grant spans 30 years, with up to $1 million available each year for the company.

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The vote came despite opposition and a “no” recommendation from the Brevard County Tourism Development Advisory Board, as well as Brevard County hoteliers and other local residents who spoke to the commission ahead of its vote. .

Now the matter could head to the courts. Daniel Mantzaris, an attorney representing Bob Baugher, the owner of hotels in the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral tourist corridor, said he believed the grant was illegal.

He sent commissioners a five-page memo outlining his views on the matter and also addressed commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The proposed grant agreement is an unauthorized and prohibited use of the Tourism Development Tax,” Mantzaris said in his memo. “It has been conclusively determined that the tourism development tax cannot be used to finance private projects. However it is presented, the project in question has not been built, and the documents and funding analysis clearly establish the grant as an alternative capital funding improvements that will be privately owned In addition, the proposed grant agreement is a substantial change to the existing tourism development tax budget and to be approved , a unanimous vote of the four current commissioners is required.

Acting Brevard County Attorney Christine Schverak disagrees and said the proposed use of the tax is legal and requires only three affirmative votes from the county commission.

Grant supporters and opponents gathered in county commission chambers to voice their views on Westin’s proposal, with most of the 30 speakers indicating they were against the grant.

The project grant was backed by a high-powered local lobbying team hired by Driftwood that included former Brevard County Commissioner Robin Fisher, attorney Kendall Moore and former Brevard County District Attorney Scott Knox.

Driftwood argued he should get the $30 million grant because his project is “transformative” for the Space Coast tourism industry and will benefit other hotels in the area. Driftwood also said it would struggle to find investors for what it says is a $388 million project without the county’s $30 million commitment to the marketing program.

The proposed 502-room Westin Resort and Conference Center would replace Driftwood’s existing 502-room International Palms Resort on that hotel’s State Road A1A site. The Westin would include 11 dining venues, a spa, three swimming pools, a fitness center, multiple retail outlets and a multi-story parking lot that can accommodate approximately 800 vehicles. The complex would also include approximately 50,000 square feet of indoor conference space and approximately 70,000 square feet of outdoor conference space.

Driftwood Capital Chief Financial Officer Glenn Wasserman speaks to Brevard County Commissioners on Tuesday.

Driftwood Capital’s chief financial officer, Glenn Wasserman, said within five years of opening, the Westin project would support 1,300 local jobs and increase tourist tax revenue by $3.1 million a year, while increasing local sales tax and property tax revenue.

“A Westin, I think, is a game-changer for this community,” Commissioner Rita Pritchett said, not only for its positive impacts on tourism, but also for increasing property value and increasing property tax revenue. . “This will have a long-term impact on our community and our quality of life.”

During a long argument, Tobia sought to persuade at least one other commissioner to oppose the grant, but was unsuccessful.

This is an artist rendering of what the Westin Cocoa Beach Resort and Spa and its conference center would look like in an aerial view

After the vote, Driftwood officials told FLORIDA TODAY they were pleased with the outcome.

“We are very pleased with the grant award,” Wasserman said. “This is something we were looking for, and we worked diligently to come up with the structure that would benefit the county, benefit the community, and help us secure the financing we will need to develop the property.

Carlos Rodriguez, CEO and founder of Driftwood Capital, said “this will definitely benefit the community and all of Brevard County.”

Rodriguez said that “with higher property taxes coming from this property, it basically allows the commissioners not to increase mileage rates, not to increase taxes on the citizens of Brevard County. We’re getting some new dollars, but it’s coming from tourists, not residents, and Brevard County residents are feeling the impact of all these new tourists coming in and buying in their stores, eating in their restaurants. We cannot accommodate everyone coming to the convention center, so we will generate a lot of overnight stays for other hoteliers.

Among the 25 people who spoke against Driftwood's proposal during the public comment period was Merritt Island resident Bonnie King, who worked at the Space Coast Office of Tourism for 32 years, including as a as assistant director.

The Tourism Development Board – an advisory board to the County Commission – did not support Westin’s application. Instead, the panel previously voted 7-1 to back a marketing grant to Westin of up to $500,000 a year for seven years — a total of up to $3.5 million — with Office staff. tourism and not Driftwood responsible for coordinating the marketing effort. This proposal was put forward by Giles Malone, a member of the Tourism Development Council, a partner in the media company Space Coast Daily, as well as a partner in an events and sports management company.

This alternative proposal was not discussed during the county commission debate on Tuesday.

This is an artist rendering of a portion of the interior space for the proposed convention and conference center at the Westin planned for Cocoa Beach.

Cocoa Beach Mayor Ben Malik and City Commissioner Mike Miller were among those backing Driftwood’s proposal.

Malik said the Westin would replace the “horror” that is the International Palms and a place that has received numerous calls from the police.

But, when interviewing Malik and Miller, Tobia noted that the City of Cocoa Beach had not approved any grants for the project.

Dave Berman is a business writer at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Berman at [email protected] Twitter: @bydaveberman.

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