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Hotel, convention center envisioned

A hotel worker is buying land in Crystal River to fulfill her dream of building a top-of-the-line facility.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2000


CRYSTAL RIVER -- For years, Amy Virgo has wanted to spur downtown development, promote the local tourism market and operate her own hotel.

Now Virgo thinks she can accomplish all three goals -- at the same time.

Virgo announced Wednesday plans to build a 50-room, five-star hotel and convention center on land across from City Hall.

"It's just a dream that I've had for a long, long time, and I can see that it can really happen," said Virgo, a former City Council candidate and longtime hotel industry worker. "It seems like now's the time."

Earlier this week, Virgo signed a contract to buy 2 acres at U.S. 19 and NW First Avenue. The parcel includes five lots, three of which feature highway frontage. The others provide waterfront access to Kings Bay, but Virgo said she does not plan to build a marina.

Virgo said she agreed to pay $450,000 to the owners, Dr. F. Jones Smiley and Jerome P. Sims of Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. The sale is pending.

Walt Brown, the city's building official, said the land is zoned commercial and thus could be developed as a hotel and convention center. Of course, Brown cannot judge any project's merits until he -- not to mention the applicable city boards and other governmental regulating agencies -- reviews the formal plans.

Virgo hasn't gotten that far quite yet. But she has retained an attorney, is working with a local bank on financing and is searching for an architect and project engineer.

Most of all, she has a vision: On land that now holds only oak trees, Virgo hopes to develop a top-of-the-line hotel, with around-the-clock room service, valet parking and all the other amenities that top lodging places offer.

She will call it Magnolia Lodge, borrowing the name from a lodge that once graced Crystal River. The convention center, designed to hold 500 people, would share the Magnolia name.

The new facility would attract midweek convention traffic, something Citrus doesn't get much of now. And the hotel and convention center would be designed to fit with the small-town, naturally beautiful image that Citrus' government and tourism industry are trying to foster.

It would "really keep with the heritage (tourism) and ecotourism that we have to promote in the community," Virgo said. She also noted that convention planners lately have tried to find smaller, out-of-the way places to bring groups instead of relying on crowded, traditional places such as New York City or Nashville.

Assuming all goes well, Virgo plans to break ground in July. She acknowledges that her grand plans might require more than 2 acres, and she is actively looking for additional land.

If Virgo's name is familiar, there is good reason: She has made headlines several times in recent months.

Virgo tried, unsuccessfully, to win a City Council seat during the most recent election. She finished third in a three-candidate race, with carpenter Ray Wallace winning the seat.

Virgo also is operating a tourism development business in Crystal River whose goal is to attract tour buses full of visitors.

Raised in Miami, Virgo came to Citrus County in 1972 to work at her father's mobile home sales business. She eventually went to work at the Crystal Lodge Motel, now the Best Western in Crystal River, earning $3.35 per hour as a front desk clerk.

She moved to Tulsa, Okla., and continued work in the hotel business. Virgo eventually moved back to Florida and, in summer 1986, started work at a Sheraton Hotel in Riviera Beach.

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