On Monday afternoon, Marco Marriott general manager Rick Medwedeff invited the public to the hotel and laid out plans for expanded meeting facilities and additional parking before a full but not overflowing crowd — in a ballroom that would be torn down and replaced in the new scheme.
Approximately 200 Marco residents, including many of the “usual suspect” community leaders, movers and shakers, listened for about 40 minutes as Medwedeff laid out the hotel’s plans and then asked questions during a Q&A session. The Marriott, he said, desperately needs more space to move with the times. The proposed additions, Medwedeff said, consist primarily of two components: increased and modernized meeting space and more parking space in an open one-story parking deck to accommodate the added guests.
Responding to criticism that the plan was originally broached during the summer when many island residents are away, Medwedeff promised another meeting would be held in January, with the date and time publicized well in advance. Medwedeff said he wanted to “dispel rumors and what I see as misinformation” that has been circulated, particularly the idea the resort is turning into a convention center.
“It’s good to hear it from the horse’s mouth — and I’m the horse,” he said. He showed slides of a convention center in Tampa, with 600,000 square feet of meeting space, and one in Orlando with 2.1 million.
“Hotels don’t run convention centers, municipalities do,” he said, adding that Marco Island’s size and distance from a commercial airport made that type of business impractical.
He characterized what the Marriott wants as meeting space, and said it is vital to keep the hotel competitive in today’s market. The biggest impact, said Medwedeff, would not come during the winter months, when the Marriott already has a 95 percent occupancy rate, but during the summer, when value-conscious groups are looking for meeting venues.
Moving the work forward gained increased urgency, he said, with verbal commitment recently received for the approximately $130 million cost from the resort’s corporate management and Mass Mutual, the owner. Additional work would make the total price tag close to $150 million.
The increased height of the resort’s south tower, rising to 117 feet, would require a variance in the resort’s PUD, which currently caps the allowed height at 100 feet. Medwedeff said the new elevation would only make the hotel the 32nd tallest building on the island. The existing structure would be demolished to make room for the expanded meeting facilities. The addition of 93 additional guest rooms would bring the total number of guest rooms to 810, the maximum allowed in the Marriott’s PUD. A rooftop pool and restaurant, open to the Gulf, are also included in the plan.
Much of the controversy surrounding the projected expansion has focused on additional parking facilities, particularly the specter of a multistory parking garage east of Collier Blvd. Medwedeff presented the one-story “deck” as a compromise and a win-win for the hotel and neighbors. Tennis courts currently located across the street from the hotel will be relocated off-site, with guests shuttled back and forth as they are for golf, and the hotel will move to 100 percent valet parking for overnight guests, he said.
Altogether, parking spaces would be increased by about one third, including 28 covered spaces dedicated to community use for beach parking. In a concession to the plan’s critics, the parking deck has been lowered from a height of 12 feet to 8 feet, 8 inches through a different construction technique, and reduced its footprint from the entire parking lot to only approximately the northern half.
Medwedeff touted the economic advantage to the island, which he estimated at an incremental $46 million flowing into Marco, primarily during the offseason, and 97 new “FTEs,” full-time-equivalents or jobs.
After the presentation, comments and questions fell roughly into two categories. There were the hotel’s immediate neighbors, unhappy with expansion and warning of dirt, noise and increased traffic, balanced by community members speaking out on behalf of the Marriott as a good corporate citizen and major engine of the island’s economic prosperity.
“I believe this whole project was already on the drawing board in 2001” when the hotel last asked for expansion, said George Argyris, describing himself as a “neighbor at the south end. Medwedeff said that was not the case, and in response to another question, said “this is the last phase, the full package, and there is no walkway over Collier Blvd.”
“I found this island because of a convention here. One thing that makes Marco great is the Marriott,” Ernie Lasalle said from the audience, drawing sustained applause. Ray Champagne, like the hotel a major supporter of the Marco Island Academy, thanked the Marriott for its community involvement, again garnering a round of applause. Given the tendency of a meeting such as this one to be packed with those who are incensed about the plans, the apparent community support was remarkable.
Medwedeff said the next morning that he was delighted by the positive response at the meeting. In a best-case scenario, they hope to break ground in May, 2015, and have the project complete by December 2016.
“It’s a long planning and permitting process, and we have to work around our existing group bookings,” he said.