Delray Beach debates whether to push for more tourism

DELRAY BEACH — After two sluggish years, tourists are returning to Delray Beach, flocking to the city’s bustling downtown area on Atlantic Avenue at a pace that is expected to surpass pre-pandemic levels.

But as tourist numbers begin to rise, city officials are wondering: How many tourists do we really want in Delray?

That’s the problem the commissioners face as they map out the city’s long-term vision for tourism, including whether to add more infrastructure, such as hotels, to meet a potential increase. demand.

“I don’t know how we can cram so much with what’s going on here,” Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia said at a town hall meeting on Tuesday. “If you’re here during the season on a Saturday night, it’s crazy.

“There really was a long period of time where [residents] felt like visitors to their own city, and some stopped coming [downtown].”

Tourism has been an important economic driver for the city, generating $876,000 a day in direct economic value, a consultant told city commissioners at the meeting. Don Kolodz, president of Tourism Strategic Solutions, said tourist numbers in Delray Beach were 96% of the city in 2019 and expected to surpass that figure by the end of the year.

As the city begins to “increase our tourism pie in terms of visits, we probably need to look at where do we need the extra capacity in terms of hotel rooms,” Kolodz added. “Is it in the west?” Is it downtown? Where is land available? »

The topic of hotels will likely come up later this year as the city prepares to open a bidding round for a 6-acre parcel of land at the Delray Beach Golf Club. The nearly 100-year-old golf course needs around $10-15 million to fix various issues, such as replacing drainage pipes under the course and upgrading restrooms, maintenance facilities and parking lots .

Due to this high price, Delray Beach is looking for a developer to finance the repairs. In exchange, the city is willing to cede 6 acres of land bordering Atlantic Avenue for future mixed-use development.

However, adding hotels does not seem to be a priority for the city. Delray Beach has seen an influx of new downtown hotels with the Ray Hotel opening in 2021 and a Hampton Inn by Hilton planned for 2023.

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City Commissioner Ryan Boylston said he was not pushing for more hotels, noting recent additions and increases in home-sharing options, such as Airbnb.

“These can erode neighborhoods and communities because then you don’t have people working here full time,” Boylston said. “We don’t want to live in a tourist town. We want to live in a fantastic city with a vibrant downtown that people want to visit, but it’s a fine line.

“Daytona, Panama City, even the beach in Fort Lauderdale – they’ve seen how hard it is to go back. You get the big ups and downs of being a tourist town.

Instead of lobbying to attract more tourists, Petrolia said, the main goal should be to reconnect with residents and “make them feel like they’re truly invited.”

She added: “We are already a tourist destination. We already do [tourism numbers that] many places would like to be able to access it. How many visitors do we really want to attract beyond what we already have, especially at the height of our season? »

City Commissioner Juli Casale shared a similar sentiment, suggesting the city could potentially partner with local hotels to offer packages with amenities like spas aimed at people looking for staycations.

“When hotels have less off-season capacity, the best approach for us is to try to cultivate a ton of new [tourists] is to try to fill in the gaps when our current business is slow,” Casale said.

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