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Businesses paid dearly but still lost

Their group spent nearly $200,000 to fight amendments.

Published December 6, 2006


The results of the recent election were a resounding setback for business owners on this barrier island. Most of them were shocked when voters repealed a city-approved development plan aimed at boosting tourism.

It was also a costly loss for those owners.

Campaign treasurer reports show that a political action committee headed by Gary Renfrow, president of the Alden Beach Resort, and Tim Bogott, president of Fortune Hotels Inc., which owns TradeWinds Island Resorts, spent nearly $200,000 fighting six city amendments on the ballot that were seen by many in the tourism community as antidevelopment.

All but four of the ballot questions were passed, in a move that essentially gave residents control over major development changes in the city.

The Alliance for a Balanced Community, or ABC, raised at least $158,000 in the three weeks before the election, according to the most recent financial report submitted by the group. Contributions made in the week immediately before the race do not have to be turned in to the city clerk's office until January.

In total, the group raised at least $234,510 since it was founded in September.

In comparison, Citizens for Responsible Growth, or CRG, a group composed mostly of residents who were opposed to the city's development plan, raised about $5,000 in the same three weeks before the election, bringing the groups' total monetary contributions since 2005 to nearly $94,000.

Much of ABC's money went to television advertisements that featured local hotel owners and residents urging their neighbors to vote no and "preserve our city."

The biggest donors were hoteliers, who had the most to lose in the election. One of the amendments stuck down a plan to allow hotels to grow from five stories to 15 stories.

In the last three weeks of the campaign, Best Western donated $17,000 and the TradeWinds donated more than $50,000.

In that time period, ABC spent $107,000 on marketing and media relations, about half of which went to the Slevin Group, a Tallahassee-based public relations firm.

Gregg Nicklaus, president of the Sirata Beach Resort and a member of ABC, said CRG spent less money only because their attorney, Kenneth Weiss, did much of his work pro bono. If Weiss had been paid, CRG's expenses would probably have equaled ABC's, he said.

CRG, which had considerably more time to urge voters to support the amendments, did not hire a public relations firm.

In the last weeks of the campaign trail, about $3,000 of their money went to stamps, ink, cartridges and paper to support their mail campaign. "I think it just proves that money cannot buy the vote," Weiss said. "Voters are smarter than politicians are."

Despite the election being long over, neither group is expected to disappear from the city's political field.

City officials are discussing the possibility of putting a development plan on the March ballot.

CRG is no longer fundraising, but is waiting to see what the city will do next before taking a new plan of action, Weiss said.

"As long as my clients are willing, I will never give up," Weiss said.

Nicklaus said ABC was also waiting to see what would unfold in the next few months.

"We are here to help, to provide any kind of answers to questions should they arise," he said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or

[Last modified December 6, 2006, 06:33:42]

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