It was an outrageous claim: Osceola County was going to get a convention-center complex so big you could see it from the moon.
Fifteen years and many fizzled efforts later, the best the county could muster is 46,000 square feet of meeting and event space in the recently opened Osceola County Conference Center.
Meanwhile, 17 miles away, Orange County's government-run convention center, which opened in 1983, has grown to more than 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space and is now the second-largest such facility in the country.
As Osceola works to rejuvenate U.S. Highway 192, the tourist strip dotted with inexpensive motels and second-tier attractions, the question of convention space — and the need for it — continues to divide business owners.
The meeting space in the Osceola County Conference Center, a partnership with the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, is essentially an addition to the 720-room luxury hotel, which already has its own convention space.
The project was part of a $120 million incentive approved by Osceola government back in 2008 to promote the construction of more convention space within the county. Another large convention hotel, the
Some U.S. 192 hoteliers argue that the county tourist-tax revenue set aside for those ancillary conference centers should be spent instead to generate new business within the main tourism corridor, which extends for 15 miles from
"There's no way somebody coming for a convention at the Gaylord is going to come all the way and stay at our independent hotels," said Tammy Miller, who bought her hotel on the eastern end of the tourist strip in 2007 after a convention center was proposed for a site nearby. "We're not benefiting at all."
Back in 1997, when the $1 billion World Expo Center — with 80 acres under one roof — was proposed for the heart of the tourism corridor, Osceola businesses had already been burned multiple times by various plans to build centers capable of drawing trade shows, industry conventions and other large events to 192.
Despite millions in available county incentives, World Expo Center never materialized, either. And in the years since then, a succession of other proposals have fizzled as well.
The $120 million center-incentive agreement that the Osceola County Commission signed with Gaylord and Rida Associates, ChampionsGate's general partner, in November 2008 promised tourist-development-tax dollars if the two hotels expanded their convention space and added more hotels rooms.
The agreement kept Osceola out of the convention-center business — something that routinely costs Orange County millions of dollars a year in tax-supported operating subsidies — and made use of two successful resorts that were already well-established in the meetings business.
But in the wake of the financial crisis, which froze or hindered credit for all kinds of development, both hotels defaulted on their agreement with the county by failing to demonstrate by a 2011 deadline that they had the private money needed to carry out the projects. The county could have terminated the agreement but instead granted both companies an extension until February 2014.
Since then, the Omni has delivered on the first phase of its part of the agreement: the conference center. Still to come is a 121-room Hampton Inn & Suites, plus eight outdoor athletic fields that would bolster Osceola's growing sports-tourism industry, which caters to youth athletic camps and amateur championships.
According to Marc Reicher, senior vice president of Rida Associates, the Omni conference center had already generated more than 50,000 additional room-nights booked at his hotel by the time it opened, producing additional tourist-tax dollars for county projects, including tourism promotion. And guests at his hotel sometimes make their way up to the western end of U.S. 192, to dine at restaurants like Carrabba's and Bonefish Grill, which are about 10 minutes away, he said.
"These people are going to come out and spend money in the community," he said.
The ballfields, he added, are more likely to benefit hotels along U.S. 192 once they're built. He estimated the Omni and Hampton Inn will capture only about 20 percent of the athletes who come to play on the new fields; the other 80 percent will stay elsewhere, including along U.S. 192.
"The fact that some more ballfields are being built is something that people are happy about," echoed Mark Brisson, spokesman for Fun Spot USA, an amusement park in the heart of the U.S. 192 corridor. "If you're trying to get to ChampionsGate, you don't stay in Lakeland. You stay on 192. … It's economical, it's family friendly and it is actually closer."
As for Gaylord's portion of the deal — $80 million of the county's $120 million commitment — nothing has happened yet. The sprawling convention hotel, about a mile north of U.S. 192 near
Complicating matters is the hotel's recent change in management: Last October the owner, Nashville, Tenn.-based
Jeff Abbatichio, a hotel spokesman, said the county-backed expansion project is "still on the table," though Marriott has not made a decision about whether to proceed.
"Right now, Marriott is still exploring their options," Abbatichio said. According to the original agreement with the county, the Gaylord Palms has the option to back out of the deal next year or request to extend the county deadline for up to three years, with the hotel paying the county $500,000 for each additional year.
"But the county will look at other options for investment of the funds if the project does not move forward," said Mark Pino, Osceola's public relations officer.
There's also the possibility that something else could take the place of the convention center that never materialized on the tourist strip.
Hector Lizasuain, the county employee overseeing the corridor's latest redevelopment, said Osceola would like to attract a large retail center that would appeal to tourists — especially visitors from South America, who love shopping almost as much as visiting Disney's theme parks.
Such a retail complex, Lizasuain said, could be Osceola's "modern-day convention center."
Part One of the series
Part Two of the series