St. Johns County entering negotiations to sell convention center

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Seeking to make improvements to the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, Atrium Hospitality received good news last month when the St. Johns County Commission voted unanimously in favor of entering negotiations with the company for the potential sale of the St. Johns County Convention Center at World Golf Village.

Although Atrium owns the Renaissance and oversees the operation of the adjacent convention center, the land underlying both buildings and the convention center itself are owned by St. Johns County. After about two decades of operating under that arrangement, however, it was revealed at the June 19 meeting of the County Commission that Atrium is now looking to purchase the convention center from the county, along with the associated 10.3 acres of land.

“In February of 2018, Atrium reached out to the county to explore an interest in acquiring the convention center,” said Gail Oliver, land management systems director for the county. “A property improvement plan by Atrium is required to secure continued licensing for the Renaissance Marriott branding. Atrium would also like to reposition the hotel to appeal to upscale transient and group demand, and this requires a significant capital investment of $18 to $20 million.”

Atrium’s specified improvement plan includes adding “resort-style amenities, water features, food and beverage facilities, and a spa” to the hotel. With its franchise license agreement with Renaissance Marriott set to expire July 31, 2020, the company maintains that both the fee simple interest to the property and the capital investment are necessary to extend the agreement and “ensure the long-range viability of the hotel and the convention center.”   

The convention center, meanwhile, was funded through a $16.9 million bond and will be paid off in December of 2020, according to Oliver.

In addition to the approval to move forward with negotiations, Oliver added that county staff was also seeking funding “not to exceed $50,000” from the General Fund to complete a preliminary appraisal of “the land, improvements, air rights and other real and personal property interests in order to facilitate such negotiations.”

In apparent agreement, the commissioners approved those requests in a 5-0 vote without any major questions or concerns, but not before two residents had voiced their opposition.

“It’s just wrong,” St. Augustine resident Ed Slavin said. “I think we should hold on to it, having put $16.9 million-worth of bonded indebtedness into this project. I haven’t seen one good reason why we should sell it, and if this hotel developer wants it, they need to disclose on the public record every single beneficial owner.”

Ellen Whitmer of St. Johns agreed, contending that it was unfair for the county to sell the convention center when the taxpayers had already borne the burden of paying it off.

“I am not in favor of this and I hope that the people of St. Johns County will not be in favor of it,” she said. “Too many times I’ve seen assets paid for by the taxpayers at a great cost, only to be traded away, swapped away, sold away; and we don’t get a very good bargain at all. We get taken advantage of and I’m tired of it.”

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