400 South Collier Blvd , Marco
MARCO ISLAND — A Marco Island convention center that was proposed to the city planning board more than a year ago remains a topic of interest and conversation, with some involved saying the sun hasn’t set on the idea.
City leaders and Marco Island Marriott officials won’t confirm they still are talking about the Collier Boulevard center, but a longtime opponent who lives nearby and a city planning adviser say talk of the project didn’t end a year ago in the face of opposition by neighbors.
“There are things happening behind the scenes,” said resident Bob Olson, who owns a home on Montego Court and has been an outspoken opponent of the conference center.
Olson declined to specify what’s occurring “behind the scenes.”
“I don’t really want to say much … It was clear with what happened 10 years ago,” Olson said, referring to a petition from about 160 homeowners who made their case in obtaining and upholding a 2001 agreement that restricted the Marriott from building across the street from the existing beach resort and spa.
One city planning adviser also said there are ongoing discussions between Marriott and city leaders to revive the proposal that seemed to slip below the horizon in summer 2010.
Ideas such as the Marriott contributing to the long-awaited reconstruction of the community center at Mackle Park and the purchase of opposing residents’ properties have been “bantered about” in the past year, city Planning Board Chairman Dick Shanahan said.
Shanahan said he hasn’t talked with Marriott leaders directly about any proposal since it came before the planning board in June 2010. The project’s preliminary estimates called for about 138,000 square feet and four stories at a cost of about $70 million, but it stalled in the city’s formal approval process last year.
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Following a presentation last year from Marriott officials to the planning board, neighbors created a backlash, saying their sunset views were at risk.
Marriott officials wouldn’t confirm if the purchasing of any of these private residences is still on the table.
“I don’t want to speculate on anything,” Marco Marriott General Manager Rick Medwedeff said.
As to contributions to the city’s community center, that isn’t being considered, he said.
“The benefit to the city would be job creation, growth in the tax base. I’m hoping I have a community and a city that sees the long-term economic impact of this project and supports it rather than creating obstacles,” Medwedeff said.
The greatest opportunity will be bringing convention business to the area in the summer and off-season — the non-winter months, he said.
The project could create hundreds of construction jobs and create 80 permanent jobs, Medwedeff has estimated.
If discussions among city leaders are taking place to alter the Marriott’s planned development documents, city officials aren’t lining up to say they are engaged in those talks.
MassMutual Financial Group, which owns the hotel property, is restricted by the development agreement from building on the east-side property, which is an overflow parking lot. The agreement can be changed with planning board and council approval.
Many top city officials aren’t sharing their individual feelings about the project and say they’re not even talking.
“I haven’t been involved in anything specific… No, not a word,” said City Manager Jim Riviere, who was planning board chairman in June 2010.
City Planner Kris Van Lengen said he heard there were people engaged in discussions, but he wasn’t among them.
Van Lengen pointed to the possibility that planning board and council members may be involved in such talks.
“With something this profound, they’re going to want to get their ducks in a row. They’d be entitled on their own to meet with individuals,” Van Lengen said.
Council Chairman Jerry Gibson said he’s not in talks, but last he heard, the Marriott still was working on financing the project.
Medwedeff wants to hold town hall meetings specifically with the neighbors.
“First, get people together to address these unfounded concerns that there will be this incredible structure that will shadow over their homes,” he said.
The economic conditions are a significant aspect in an investment group deciding whether the conference center is a viable option. The ailing economy makes construction costs more attractive, but investing more risky, Medwedeff said.
The economy also may make some people more amenable to the idea than they were 10 years ago, Medwedeff said.
Perhaps he’s right that there is some softening.
Nearby homeowner Inga Gorsen had no objections to the idea.
“I’m OK with it,” she said.
Shawn Bowen, of East Naples, said he does a lot of business on Marco Island, particularly in the private homes near the proposed convention center site.
“I don’t see how it could be a negative,” said Bowen, owner of Excalibur, an audio, video and security company. “No matter what, it’s jobs.
“It would likely bring in more corporate clients (and) executives who potentially buy more properties,” Bowen said. “Hurry up and do it before somebody in Naples gets a good idea.”
Certainly not all residents are warming up to the idea of a convention center.
“I don’t think I like it too much,” Ruth Sciarrino said. “We don’t need any more tall buildings. Let them be happy with what they have.”
Shanahan said Marriott officials “have a pretty good hill to climb.”
“There are some homeowners (living) behind them that are so opposed,” Shanahan said. “Then again, there are some who think it would be great for the community, great for jobs. It’s going to be very controversial.
“The J.W. Marriott name, from a business standpoint, is very attractive.”