The vote was 3-1. Voting in favor of the grant were County Commission Chair Kristine Zonka, Vice Chair Curt Smith and Commissioner Rita Pritchett. The sole vote against it was by Commissioner John Tobia.
The money for the developer, Driftwood Capital, will come from up to half of the revenue the Westin expects to generate from the county’s 5% tourist development tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals. The grant extends for 30 years, with up to $1 million available to the company each year.
The vote came in spite of opposition and a recommendation of “no” from the advisory Brevard County Tourist Development Council, as well as from Brevard County hoteliers and other local residents who addressed the commission before its vote.
Now, the issue could head to court. Daniel Mantzaris, an attorney representing Bob Baugher, the owner of hotels in the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral tourism corridor, said he believes the grant is illegal.
He sent commissioners a five-page memo outlining his views on the issue and also addressed commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The proposed grant agreement is an unauthorized and prohibited use of the tourist development tax,” Mantzaris said in his memo. “It has been conclusively determined that tourist development tax cannot be used to fund privately owned projects. Regardless of how it is presented, the subject project has not been constructed, and the documents and the funding analysis clearly establish the grant as alternative funding of capital improvements that will be privately owned. Further, the proposed grant agreement is a substantial change to the existing tourist development tax budget, and, to be approved, requires a unanimous vote of the four current commissioners.”
Interim Brevard County Attorney Christine Schverak disagrees, and said the proposed use of the tax is legal and requires only three affirmative votes of the County Commission.
Supporters and opponents of the grant packed the County Commission chambers to express 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 Attorney Scott Knox.
Driftwood has maintained that it should get the $30 million grant because its project is “transformational” for the Space Coast tourism industry, and will benefit other hotels in the area. Driftwood also said it would have trouble lining up investors for what it says is a $388 million project without the $30 million commitment from the county for the marketing program.
The proposed 502-room Westin resort hotel and conference center would replace Driftwood’s existing 502-room International Palms Resort at that hotel’s State Road A1A site. The Westin would feature 11 food and beverage venues, a spa, three swimming pools, a fitness center, multiple retail locations, and a multistory parking garage to accommodate about 800 vehicles. The complex also would include about 50,000 square feet of indoor conference space and about 70,000 square feet of outdoor conference space.