YOUR VIEW: Proposed Driftwood Capital Taxpayer Giveaway is ‘Deja Vu All Over Again’
By Sandra Sullivan, Brevard County Commission Candidate for District 4 // June 4, 2022
YOUR OPINION • YOUR VIEW
WATCH: During a meeting of the Brevard County Tourism Development Council on May 25, TDC members expressed disapproval of a proposal from Driftwood Capital, which is seeking $30 million in taxpayer funds.
The Brevard County Tourism Development Council (TDC) meeting on May 25 was Déjà Vu, didn’t Brevard already put to rest the idea of a publicly funded Convention Center just six months ago? The idea of being publicly funded is heartburn to many voters. Now comes a new incarnation, this time a proposal giving 50 percent of the TDC bed tax back to the Driftwood developer – a proposal committing a $1 million rebate a year for over 30 years.
While this proposal is better than the $80 million original proposal, the biggest concern expressed is the precedent it would give other developers undermining the very idea of the TDC bed tax for promoting tourism in Brevard.
The issue is one of strong political pressure coming from local lobbyists for the developer who contributed to elected officials; that same pressure is likely why impact fees for sharing infrastructure costs from growth have not been updated in 15-20 years putting the burden on the taxpayers of Brevard.
Is this why the Commissioners want to do away with the charter cap that caps property tax to 3 percent?
The Driftwood proposal brought criticism at the TDC meeting including not being in the interests of the public funds; corporate welfare choosing winners and losers unfair to other hoteliers in the Brevard industry; not a convention center but a smaller business center benefiting the Westin Hotel; the proposal is based on an inadequate and biased Johnson study.
Additionally, the TDC board members also expressed that 30 years was too long for the proposal and that a 5-year commitment was more appropriate. The concern was also addressed that Driftwood typically sells their properties 5 years after building, making this proposed agreement an asset for that sale.
Finally, an argument was made that the Driftwood proposal is for a project they are going to do anyway, with or without the rebate proposal succeeding. That it is large and expensive does not justify giving back public dollars to the developer. The consensus seemed to be $30 million grant subsidy is not justified use of public funds.
This proposal is Déjà Vu because, a year ago the same issues of the unfair playing field of choosing winners and losers, for an $80 million publicly funded developer proposal for a Convention Center. The controversy resurfaced on January 25, 2022 at the Brevard County Commissioner Meeting when the contract expired to do the study as Driftwood had failed to provide the Johnson Study on which the study was to evaluate.
In addition, the project had conceptually changed: in funding, scope, decreased size of the convention center, removal of the profit-making parking garage, and increased downside risk for Brevard County. The Commission decided not to move ahead with the Driftwood-funded County independent convention center study to evaluate publicly funding the $80 million dollar proposal.
Additionally, six months ago, the Tourism Development Council (TDC) voted that Brevard Commission consider a TDC-funded Convention study to determine if a publicly funded convention center was viable and where might be the best location for a Convention Center in the County.
Brevard County Commissioners decided that with inflation and a potential recession, it was not the best time to consider such a convention study. One might think that was the end of it, but as Yogi said, “It’s deja vu all over again,” and all that has changed is the structure of the ask.
While unquestionably the TDC members were complementary that the West Hotel proposal is indeed a beautiful 4.5-star hotel that is transformational for the current International Palms Hotel in Cocoa Beach, the rebate of public funds is cause for concern setting a precedent that may undermine the TDC.
TDC board members asked why does a successful company like Driftwood need dollars to make a meeting space for that hotel?
The representative for Driftwood indicated that the price/key is less than what lenders are willing to support. TDC members responded doubtfully that the site rebate is going to determine financing nor is $1 million going to move the needle for Driftwood to do the project.
The analogy was made astutely that the developer is fully pregnant – 8 months – with the deal. Several members of the TDC suggested that Driftwood could cooperatively work with the TDC to accomplish what they needed to market their higher-end product.
The TDC has 47 percent going to marketing; the only difference is Driftwood wants the money to control. As this is public money, the wisdom shared by the TDC council was to have the developer cooperatively work with TDC on the marketing needs. While the concern was raised that there is no oversight on that money if it goes to Driftwood; Driftwood responded they want to control the money.
District 1 Commissioner Rita Pritchett’s view was different than the board in general supporting giving Driftwood the dollars and other projects TDC dollars and even saying, “I am about making all of you rich.”
In response, the TDC chair emphasized their responsibility to not set a precedence that would put stress on the budget we are responsible for to do our jobs; to take heart for TDC to operate, not to dismiss responsibility to manage the dollars. This is not Driftwood’s bed tax. It is the tax collector’s money.
Another member made the motion to designate $500,000 for 7 years for the TDC to market this Driftwood Westin property once it is operational with Driftwood working as a team with TDC staff to guarantee a stream of capital to marketing.
While the motion was seconded, that second was retracted following Commissioner Pritchet’s request to postpone a vote until July. As Brevard is experiencing massive growth with large developments being added to sewage treatment plants near capacity, we really need to look at the campaign contributions and question why deals are being made that are not good for public tax dollars.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sandra Sullivan of Satellite Beach is running for the Brevard County Commission in District 4, which includes Rockledge, Melbourne, Viera, Palm Shores, Satellite Beach and Indian Harbour Beach.