Opinion Editorial on the Hotel Development Project Written by Kevin Sheilley

Posted on: December 15, 2014

This week the Ocala City Council will decide whether to advance the agreement with Ocala Development on the development and construction of a new downtown hotel. It is a concept which has been much discussed in this community for the better part of a decade. While this paper’s editorial board and others have weighed in on this topic, I think it would be beneficial to step back and consider how we arrived at this pivotal decision point and what it really means.

Why has the city sought for the last several years to find a hotel developer for what is referred to as the former Chamber lot? The answer can be found in the city’s Downtown Master Plan. More than a decade ago, the City funded a team of planning and economic experts with the input of hundreds of citizens to develop a Master Plan. This plan was then adopted by the city as the guide for the development of the heart of our community. Many of the top priorities of this Plan have been implemented and are wonderful and vital aspects of the community:  the revitalization of the Marion Theater; the repurpose of the former library building for the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition; the redevelopment of the Sprint building into condos as is now being done; and the relocation of the Chamber of Commerce. I think anyone reviewing this list would consider each of these projects successful and a significant contribution to our downtown.

However, two of the top priorities have not yet been accomplished—a downtown hotel on the former Chamber site and the development of a parking garage. The plan not only discusses the specific need for a hotel but it details the incentives that should be considered. It is this document which provided the basics for the incentives being used to advance this project.

The development of a parking garage has been discussed for more than 50 years. Think about that for a moment—for 50 years this community has been discussing the need for a downtown parking garage. The reason City leadership and staff have been diligently working for the last ten years to see a hotel and parking garage developed is this plan.
The CEP commissioned an economic impact study of the project and the numbers are significant. The project will create more than 100 direct jobs as well as nearly 120 indirect jobs. This is in addition to the more than 100 direct construction jobs for the project. The ongoing economic impact on the community is in excess of $15 million.

Some have questioned if a hotel is feasible which is a very fair question. The developers have commissioned two separate studies both of which have confirmed the viability of the project. It is because of these studies that the developers are committing millions of dollars to advance this project. In a preliminary review of the project, the CEP Financial Review Committee determined based on these studies that the project was both feasible and the developers capable of completing the project.

The CEP Board of Directors, composed of approximately 30 business leaders, reviewed the presentation on the hotel project, the city’s investment and ROI. It was the unanimous action of the board to express their support of the project and its ability to renew, revive and rejuvenate downtown. Also, the Board encouraged the City Council to move forward with the plans to have the CEP Financial Review Committee to evaluate the project twice before the final approval.  

It is important to note that once the City executes the developer’s agreement it still has six months to determine if the project is feasible. This is to give the City time to determine how a parking garage could be financed and if it is financially feasible. The CEP has committed to working with the City and the developers to bring in consultants who have experience with similar projects to assist on possible financing mechanisms on the parking garage project. Additionally, it is during this time that the Financial Review Committee would evaluate the details of the project and the developer’s financing. If after this six-month period, the City determines that it cannot move the parking garage forward, then the city can walk away.

This paper has often decried the community’s penchant for commissioning reports which then sit on a shelf. The hotel and parking garage are integral parts of a plan which has been actively implemented over ten years. The incentives for the project were laid out in the plan a decade ago. The need for a parking garage has been discussed at great length for half a century. Finally, approving the developer’s agreement on the 16th still does not commit the City but allow the process to continue to advance.  This project has been a decade in the making and the time to move forward is now.

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