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Rob Landers, Florida Today
As the mayor of the city of Cocoa Beach, I have been an ardent supporter of measured redevelopment that will improve the quality of life for our residents by raising property values, attracting new business, and generating new tax dollars.
One of the projects that our city is particularly excited about is the proposed Westin Cocoa Beach Resort & Spa, a new $388-million redevelopment of the beachfront International Palms Hotel that will deliver our region’s first 4.5-star hotel and convention center and create 1,300 new permanent jobs.
The developers of that project have asked for the county’s support in the form of a marketing “grant” that would allow them to reinvest half of the Tourism Development Tax (TDT) dollars generated by the resort into marketing the Space Coast as a convention center destination. Specifically, the grant would allow the developer to retain 50% of the TDT tax generated each year by the resort, with a cap of $1 million per year for 30 years, and the county overseeing appropriate use of funds.
I believe this is a sound, creative and prudent use of county resources with nothing other than upside for the Brevard County taxpayer.
Let me repeat that: nothing but upside for the Brevard County taxpayer.
The grant money is not taxpayer-generated; it is paid for by visitors to the new hotel — visitors who would not come to our region otherwise (more on that later). It does not take a single penny away from any of the projects and initiatives currently funded by the TDT that benefit county residents.
On the contrary, this project is expected to generate up to $5 million in state and local sales and use taxes and put $1 million back into the coffers of the Tourism Development Council, even after the grant funds are deducted. (That’s four times what the current hotel generates, by the way). Taxpayers pay nothing — they do reap all the benefits, though.
As a small city, how do we keep taxes low while still providing a level of services that our residents demand, when operating costs are continually rising? (Our city cars have to buy fuel as well!) It’s through investments like this, for starters.
Another reason I like this project is that it’s projected to generate significant spillover spending that will enrich local business owners and incentivize everyone else to up their game as well. I’ve already spoken to one local hotelier who plans on renovating and raising room rates to capture some of the higher-paying guests that the new resort will attract to our area. Where others smell competition, he smells opportunity — and rightly so. Replacing $68 per night hotels with $200 and $300 per night hotels will put more money back into the TDC in the long run.
Detractors of this grant have suggested it shows favoritism, picking “winners and losers” in the competitive local hotel space. I disagree. Not only is this project the proverbial “rising tide that lifts all boats,” I believe the county would be justified in providing at least this level of support to any developer who offered to make an investment of this size (north of $200 million) in our community.
Other critics have asked, if the developer plans to move forward with the resort and convention center anyway, why should the county offer any support at all?
The answer is simple: There is no such thing as a “sure thing.”
The economic climate has shifted dramatically in the past several months. Rising interest rates, a nationwide construction labor shortage and inflationary pressures are causing many projects to be cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Prospective lenders for the new resort will be looking carefully at the financial projections and evidence of public support: Does the county have any skin in the game to ensure this project is a success? Can the once-sleepy little Space Coast — which doesn’t even have a 3.5-star hotel — compete with powerhouses like Orlando and Tampa that have a sophisticated and well-established marketing machine for large group business and conventions?
This grant takes nothing from the county; but for the developer, it could mean the difference between getting financing to move forward — or not.
We need the Westin project. The commercial space industry, and adjacent high-tech/defense industry, is leading our county’s growth with thousands of high-salary engineers visiting our region each year. The local space industry is anticipating 100 launches annually by 2025 and up to 400 launches each year by 2035! We need to be in a position to capitalize on all that — to meet the expectations of today’s high-tech professional visitor — and capture business that, for years, we’ve been losing to Orange County and elsewhere.
For me, supporting this marketing grant is just common sense — it’s an investment, not an expense.
Ben Malik has lived with his family in Cocoa Beach since 2007. He was elected to the city commission in 2012 and as mayor in 2016.