HAINES CITY — In a sluggish economy that’s still trying to recover from the collapse of the housing market, getting the funding to construct a large commercial project isn’t easy.
“Our main stumbling block is the funding is still tight, absolutely,” said Jane Patton, president of the Greater Haines City/Northeast Polk County Chamber of Commerce.
Still, that hasn’t stopped Haines City’s business leaders from making an aggressive push to interest a large hotel chain in building some lodging in their community. As Patton noted, the city is eager to attract a name brand hotel that draws more tourists to the city.
“In conjunction with the Haines City Economic Development Council, we’ve approached some developers and talked to some hotel chains,” Patton said. “None of them is really ready to move forward yet.”
This has been on ongoing project for Haines City’s business community for more than a year now — in fact, it’s been on their radar ever since Merlin Entertainments announced that it was buying the old Cypress Gardens theme park and transforming it into Legoland Florida, modeled after the popular parks in Europe and California.
The new park in Winter Haven would be only the second Legoland in the United States, and cities and towns along U.S. 27, from the Winter Haven line going north to the Lake County border, hope the theme park’s grand opening in October will add an enormous jolt to the Polk County economy and bring thousands of new tourists to U.S. 27.
And if more than a few of them decide to make a stop in one of the cities and towns along U.S. 27 on the way to Winter Haven, so much the better.
The Haines City Chamber is looking at establishing some busing on U.S. 27 that would take passengers up to U.S. 192 and over to Poinciana, to give people more options for getting around than simply renting a car at Orlando International Airport. The Chamber’s Economic Development Committee has also looked into getting some improved signage on U.S. 27 as it cuts through their city, to direct people to Haines City’s historic downtown neighborhood, site of weekly events like a Farmer’s Market and Music in the Park.
The city also has a banquet hall on Lake Eva and an aquatics center that attracts people from outside the region, Patton said — so there are reasons for people traveling to Legoland to decide that a stop in Haines City is worth the trip.
“The banquet hall is drawing in regional meetings and hosting regional events, and they are drawing in large numbers of people,” Patton said. “When people come here and experience what Haines City has to offer, that brings them back to the table talking.”
But so far, Patton said, overcoming a shortage of readily available credit appears to be the chief reason why Haines City hasn’t yet found a hotel chain interested in building a hotel in the city. The Haines City Economic Development Office spent months mailing out packages to the top name chains in the business, letting them know what Haines City has to offer, but early discussions with some developers failed to materialize into a solid commitment on the part of any of the chains.
Patton, though, said the city isn’t giving up.
“Our best hope is that as the traffic increases on (U.S.) 27 and Legoland opens in the fall, they (hotel chains) will still be behind the ball and jump on it as quick as they can,” she said.
So far, she added, the early discussions with the hotel chains indicate that Haines City’s location — right in the heart of Central Florida — hasn’t discouraged anyone.
“Location hasn’t been as much of an issue, although we’ve heard some developers say, ‘Why would people stay in the middle when they can go to Kissimmee or Winter Haven,’ ” she said. “But we can counter that we have less expensive venues and from a commmunity perspective, we’re looking at things we can offer to entice people here. There’s plenty of activities to do here.”
“Probably a year and a half ago, we put together a packet of information to be sent to developers and investors of hotel chains,” said Allison Beeman, deputy director of the Haines City Economic Development Council. “We did that, but without too much response back, to be honest with you. We were hopeful when the Legoland mnessage got out there that we’d find people would be interested, but at that time there was pretty much no interest, no calls back.”
Beeman hopes that begins to change in the fall.
“Now that Legoland will be opening in October, I think we’ll see some more movement among people who are interested in developing a hotel site,” she said. “I’m not too sure what the timeline will be, but we’ll be putting efforts together to try to attract those folks who might be interested in developing a hotel or two in Haines City.”
Despite the sluggish economy, there has been new construction going on in the hotel industry. Across the nation, there were 53,250 hotel rooms under construction in January 2011, and that was actually down by about 40,000 from January 2010.
When the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association held its annual banquet in February to review the yearly industry update by Smith Travel Research, known as the Lodging Industry Performance Overview, the firm predicted a strong year for Central Florida’s hotel industry. Greater Orlando has 115,000 hotel rooms, second only to Las Vegas, which has 163,000, and new hotels are still being built here, despite the drop in room rates during the recession.
Orlando is the third largest hotel market with rooms in construction, with 2,143 new hotel rooms being built here in January, followed only by New York with 6,317, and Washington, with 3,273.
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