Year In Review: Hilton, healthcare and a hurricane

Lisa Conley
Marco Eagle
Stock photo

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series highlighting the biggest hard news stories of 2017. Read part one at 

More:Year In Review: Parks, politics and positions of power

Despite what some people may think, there's never a dull moment on Marco Island, and 2017 was especially jam packed with everything from heated political battles to a Category 3 hurricane.

Marco Hilton struggles with fire, flooding

The Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa

The Marco Island Hilton closed its doors on June 9 after an electrical fire on the ninth floor of the building caused $1 million in damages.

The Hilton was further damaged three days later when steel plugs burst from old sprinkler pipes in the ceiling and caused extensive flooding on the hotel’s third and ninth floors, according to a Marco Island police incident report.

More:Hilton remains closed indefinitely after fire, flooding

During the hotel’s closure, a Naples Daily News investigation revealed that two dozen contractors filed more than $12 million in liens against the hotel for unpaid work from a $40 million renovation project.

The number and amount of liens on the project were unusual, one contractor’s lawyer said, and show the hotel struggled through the large renovation project that promised Marco visitors a "best in class Gulf-front experience."

More:Contractors say Marco Island Hilton owed $12M for renovations

Manhattan Construction, the general contractor for the first and 11th floors of the project, is one of the contractors that filed liens against the hotel. Its two liens total $7.5 million, with an additional $279,000 in interest.

Manhattan Construction is owned by U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney and his family. But he said he has removed himself from the business, and it’s now being run by his oldest son, Larry.

In this file photo from November 2016, heavy equipment carries construction material in front of the hotel. The Marco Island Hilton has been closed since June 1 as the hotel undergoes a $40 million renovation.

More:U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney answers questions about business ties

Gordon Knapp, senior vice president of Manhattan Construction Southwest Florida, said the problems with the project largely stemmed from on-the-job changes requested by the Hilton.

“Lots of changes occurred during the life of the job, which isn’t unusual when you’re doing a major renovation. But that’s why it’s taking quite a bit of time to sort out the costs,” he said. “It’s a long and arduous process of going through each of the changes that were made as the work was being done.”

In the meantime, the subcontractors have to protect themselves, Knapp said; hence, the liens.

DOCUMENT:View the liens against the Marco Island Hilton Beach Resort & Spa

Vincent Bucci, the Marco Island Hilton’s managing director, said the hotel is in the process of settling the liens.

“We are aware that certain contractors have filed liens to reserve their rights relating to construction activities at the hotel,” he wrote in an email. “We remain committed to working toward a successful resolution of these matters with the general contractor, Manhattan Construction, and related subcontractors.”

More:3 To Know: Hilton employees will be paid throughout closure

More:3 To Know: Hilton struggles with restaurant re-opening

Now the hotel is in the midst of another major renovation, spurred by its unexpected closure. The $40 million upgrade includes modernizing and improving the guest rooms, pool area, lobby and public spaces.

The Hilton's guest rooms will remain closed until March 7, but its meetings spaces, restaurants and bar are open now.

More:No rooms at the inn: Marco Hilton's guest rooms to remain closed until March

Director of sales and marketing Andrew Neubauer, left, and interim general manager Robert Marcil show off the renovated gulf-front pool area. The Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort & Spa's guest rooms will remain closed into February for repair and renovations, but the hotel's meeting areas and restaurants are open for business.

Council, residents push for EMS control

In February 2016 the Marco Island City Council unanimously agreed to explore the possibility of obtaining a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (COPCN), which would allow the city to operate its own ambulance services. The move was prompted by Collier County's effort to bring all emergency medicine in the county under one roof, which city leaders fear would decrease the island's already-questionable quality of service.

More:Brent Batten: Marco sets ambulance process in motion

As part of its effort, council hired an outside consultant to conduct an evaluation of the city’s emergency medical services (EMS). In December, the consultant shared his findings and recommended that the city apply for a COPCN.

Marco Island residents and city councilors stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. The Marco Island City Council met at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 4, 2017.

More:Consultant recommends city move forward with COPCN

Council continued to explore its options during the first half of the new year, and finally met met with county commissioners, the first face-to-face meeting between the two entities since 2014, to discuss the situation in May.

At the meeting the commissioners tried to ease the city's concerns; District Two Commissioner Andy Solis said that the county remains uncertain as to when, and if, it will consolidate its EMS and fire services, and even if it does, the quality of service it provides will not be effected.

Unhappy with the county's response, council agreed to "aggressively pursue" a COPCN using a three-prong approach: 1) ask the county for a second full-time ambulance to improve the island's quality of service 2) obtain a COPCN, which requires the county's approval 3) amend state law so that municipalities rather than counties have the power to grant COPCNs.

More:Collier County, Marco Island officials meet for first time in a few years

More:Marco City Council to aggressively pursue COPCN

Tabatha Butcher
Collier County Emergency Medical Services

The county continued to fight back; in August, Collier County EMS Chief Tabatha Butcher appeared before the councilors and shared statistics that, in the county's eyes, negate their argument that Marco currently receives sub-par service.

“In looking at the response times countywide, Marco actually has the second highest response time in the county,” she said. “I feel we’re meeting and exceeding our level of service standard.”

For that reason, the county denied Marco Island's request for a second full-time ambulance, thereby forcing council to begin pursuing the other two prongs.

More:County to city: You don't need a second ambulance

In October, all three Collier County state legislative delegation members – Sen. Kathleen Passidomo and Reps. Bob Rommel and Bryon Donalds – voted to support a local bill that would allow the city to obtain a COPCN, but with a two stipulations: there must be a referendum on the August 2018 primary election ballot and council must file a COPCN application with the county.

At a special-called meeting on Dec. 12, council unanimously agreed to submit a COPCN application to Collier County no later than Dec. 22. It also unanimously agreed to place a binding COPCN referendum on the Aug. 28 primary ballot.

More:Marco receives unanimous support for COPCN bill

More:Marco council votes 7-0 to apply for a COPCN

Hurricane Irma hits Marco Island

Hurricane Irma made landfall on Marco Island as a Category 3 hurricane at 3:35 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 10. For most of the day the island was battered by sheets of rain and wind measuring up to 130 mph.

Damage from Hurricane Irma can be seen on Marco Island, Fla. Sunday, September 10, 2017.

“In the 21 years that we’ve lived here, I just never thought that we’d experience this because so many times we’ve been close, but it’s never directly hit us,” Marco Island resident Shelli Connelly said.

Emergency personnel and city officials began assessing the damage as soon as the storm passed. Marco Island Police Department (MIPD) Captain Dave Baer confirmed that there were parts of the island, like South Barfield Drive, with one- to two-feet of standing water. Rescue operations began immediately.

More:Hurricane Irma: Marco couple talks about damage on island after storm

More:Hurricane Irma: Landfall on Marco devastates the island, rescues underway

More:Hurricane Irma: Marco receives its wrath

Marco Island Fire-Rescue (MIFR) Chief Mike Murphy estimated that the island was hit with three- to four-foot storm surges. Although a far cry from the predicted 15 ft. storm surges, it was still enough to create a dangerous situation for residents, and MIPD officers were restricting access to the island Monday morning while they conducted a full damage assessment.

Damage from Hurricane Irma can be seen on Marco Island on Sept. 13, 2017, three days after the hurricane made landfall.

MIPD lifted the restricted access order mid-morning, and water was restored later in the day with an island-wide boil water notice.

In the following days, Lee County Electric Cooperative (LCEC) employees, city, county and state officials, business owners and countless others worked together on the recovery process. By Friday, many grocery stores and restaurants were open for business, and 70 percent of the island had power.

More:Hurricane Irma: Marco Island on the path to recovery

More:Hurricane Irma: Most of Marco Island's landmarks withstood storm

More:Hurricane Irma: How Marco Island weathered the storm

Three weeks after the storm, City Council met to reflect on the city's response.

The city's lobbyist, Ronald Book, who was at the meeting to discuss the priorities for the Collier County state legislative delegation, said of the most important things to do after a natural disaster is learn from it.

City Hall, which has exterior walls composed almost entirely of glass, was unscathed by Hurricane Irma, although there were several large uprooted trees in the parking lot.

“What I’m hopeful to get are ideas that your staff has for improving the building code,” he said to the council. “What worked (and) what didn’t work? Here’s what we know didn’t work; we know there are issues out there related to debris. Why are there issues? What has happened?"

Members of the council pointed out other issues that arose during the storm, such as the Sunshine Law interfering with their ability to communicate with each other.

More:Marco Island reflects on Hurricane Irma response, plans for future disasters

More:MIPD sergeant: “We thought we were going to leave here in 10 feet of water.”

More:Marco firefighter: 'This is what we signed up for'

Six weeks after the storm, life was all but back to normal on Marco; hotels were slowly starting to fill with tourists, restaurants and shops were bustling and the beaches were as busy as ever. Piles of debris were the only reminder of Irma’s wrath, and now, just more than three months after the storm, nearly all of the streets have been cleared. 

Although some homeowners and businesses will still be grappling with Irma-related repairs in the coming months, the city as whole appears to be ready to welcome its seasonal residents home.

More:Marco Island all but normal six weeks after Hurricane Irma

More:Marco Island to tourists: 'We're ready for you'