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ORLANDO-The clock is ticking as executives at Orlando-based Xentury City Development Co. and elected officials at Osceola County rush to complete a contract for the construction of a planned $100 million, 500,000-sf convention center and a 30-story, 1,000-room hotel, 10 minutes from Walt Disney World.

The venture would be the largest of its kind for the 120-year-old county that historically has raised cattle and grown citrus as its basic industries. The county, 20 miles south of Downtown Orlando, sees tourism and conventions as its next golden egg.

The enterprise would be financed by the sale of revenue bonds the county would market on Wall Street. Xentury and its investor associates would guarantee up to $90 million of the project’s cost.

Xentury and the county have been talking contract since May but an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by the Orlando/Kissimmee Hotel-Motel Association, trying to halt the development, derailed negotiations for 60 days.

Now Osceola commissioners are giving Xentury two weeks to do the deal or they will start negotiations with the No. 2 developer candidate, Landmark Organization of Austin, TX.

The 50-member Kissimmee hotelier group is backing Landmark because the Texas firm favors a convention center location nearer to many of the smaller hotels and motels on U.S. 192. Xentury’s 400-acre site is on the southeast corner of Osceola Parkway and International Drive South.

The sticking point in the talks is the $30 million, 30-acre land donation Xentury is making for the two-phased project. The land gift equates to $1 million per acre or $22.96 per sf, pricey dirt in Central Florida’s commercial development arena.

“We are donating the land in fee simple (format) but we had asked that the country revert the land back to us in the event that it ever was not used for a convention center…to protect the adjacent ($2 billion) development that is being designed (by Xentury) to support a convention center,” Susan Lawrence, Xentury’s vice president/marketing, tells GlobeSt.com.

She says that sort of stipulation is “a standard approach on matters dealing with gifts to municipalities, universities and so forth.”

But Osceola County chairman Paul Owen doesn’t see it that way, according to a published report. Owen wants the county to kill its deal with Xentury and start talks with the Texas developer. Owen couldn’t be reached at GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline.

Neither could David O’Neal, president, Conventional Wisdom Corp., Winter Garden, FL, who is advising the county on the deal. O’Neal formerly ran the four million-sf Orange County Convention Center in the early 1990s when its gross size was only two million sf.

O’Neal’s office said he was out of state on business. O’Neal previously said the talks were on schedule and that Osceola was pleased with the negotiations’ progress, according to a published report.

Another issue being raised by county commissioners is on the operations of the planned hotel in difficult economic periods. The county wants a guarantee from Xentury that it would not shut down or walk away from the hotel in a recession.

“That’s not really a major issue,” Lawrence tells GlobeSt.com. “At $150,000 per room (hard construction cost), Xentury is not going to shut down” an investment in which it is an active partner.

The hotel would be owned by an independent hotel developer such as Sheraton or Westin and would be managed by a separate manager such as Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. of White Plains, NY, whom Xentury prefers.

“There are other outstanding issues to be negotiated, but our take at Xentury, and the understanding of the county staff, was that we were making very good progress and moving at the anticipated pace,” Lawrence tells GlobeSt.com.

A commercial real estate professional for 20 years with national brokerages such as Prudential and Pizzuti Cos., Lawrence says, “One has to remember that this is nearly a $100 million deal and that 120 days to address all issues is very optimistic.”

Lawrence says, “Having done development deals for 20 years, I know that all kinds of unanticipated issues crop up during negotiations.”

She tells GlobeSt.com, “The bottom line is, we have every intention of satisfying both parties’ requirements and building the convention center and hotel.”

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