What’s the holdup on the Grover Beach Lodge and Conference Center?

In 2014, Grover Beach approved long-heralded plans for a Lodge and Conference Center at the end of Grand Avenue that would make the beach-side city a destination for business travelers and tourists on the Central Coast and generate an annual economic impact of up to $15 million.

Three years later, the project has yet to break ground, while permits for it have been extended not once, but twice, leaving many who remember hearing plans for it more than three decades ago asking: What is the holdup?

The reasons vary — a slow start, legal hurdles and most recently, project redesigns. But Mayor John Shoals says the wait is nearly over — the project could break ground as soon as August.

“To use a sports analogy, we’re at the goal line now,” he said. “And we’re ready to bring it in for a touchdown.”

A slow start

The proposed lodge and conference center has had many iterations in the past three decades. Proposals to develop the vacant lot at the end of West Grand Avenue have been floating around since at least the 1980s, according to previous Tribune reports.

In 1985, the city pushed plans to partner with the state and a private developer to build a lodge and conference center at the western edge of town, but those plans were dropped after financial studies indicated they weren’t feasible, in part because beachfront hotels were being built in the Pismo Beach area then.

Those plans were revived in the 1990s while the city pursued redevelopment, and over the following decade, the council discussed hiring developers for the project, but little progress was made.

Then in 2004, the council unanimously approved a concept agreement with the California Department of Parks and Recreation to develop a proposal for the facility at the beach.

It was a “very, very preliminary step,” according to officials at that time.

In 2009, the city authorized San Diego-based Pacifica Companies to take the lead on the project, which by then had ballooned from a 7.5-acre proposal to a 13.4-acre project that included a 150-room hotel and 11,000-square-foot conference center, a restaurant and improvements to restrooms, picnic areas, a new putting green and golf course clubhouse.

Finally, in December 2013, the City Council approved the first permit for the facility.

To use a sports analogy, we’re at the goal line now. And we’re ready to bring it in for a touchdown.

John Shoals, Grover Beach mayor

Shoals, who has served on the council on-and-off since 2002, calls that 2013 decision the start of the city’s accelerated efforts toward seeing the lodge and conference center to construction.

“I would say we’ve been working on this in earnest since 2013,” he said. “It’s a very complicated project.”

But instead of swiftly moving forward, the project was slowed by two separate appeals to the California Coastal Commission by off-roading group Friends of Oceano Dunes and a local equestrian. Both appeals said the project would block beach access, among other problems.

It was also briefly delayed by a procedural error that forced the council to revote on issuing the permit, four months after initially approving it.

In 2014, the Coastal Commission found that the appeals didn’t raise any substantial issues, and the project was said to be ready to break ground within the next year.

The modern revision

But in June 2016, Pacifica Companies asked the council for a one-year permit extension, which it received.

During that time, a lot of behind-the-scenes work occurred, Shoals said, noting that the city had begun to update its financing plan to pay for its portion of the $45 million to $50 million project, as well as complete necessary utilities upgrades in that area and most importantly, redesign the conference center.

“I’m not going to say that the original conference center was an afterthought, but the focus was not on the conference center,” he said.

The conference center and lodge were originally envisioned as one building, but that concept has since evolved into three hotel buildings totaling approximately 110,000 square feet, with a fourth building as a 11,130-square-foot standalone conference center.

The interior also needed significant redesigns to make it more user-friendly and appealing to potential users. Among those changes were plans for meeting spaces between 400 square feet and 1,500 square feet that could be partitioned off to make smaller or larger rooms as needed. There will also be a 1,500-square-foot courtyard that could be used for events.

Those redesigns took time, hence Pacifica’s need to come back to the council June 5 for another one-year permit extension before the previous permit expired this month.

Officials don’t expect it to come back for a third extension.

“We’re looking at August for breaking ground,” Shoals said. “My preference would be for it to be up and running before I’m out of office, but with everything considered, we are looking at about 2019. We’ll do whatever we can to expedite the process though.”

According to City Manager Matt Bronson, the city is reviewing the final plans for the hotel and the plaza improvements, securing an architect for the final design of the conference center and developing a final financing strategy to present to the council this summer (the city is expected to contribute about $9.5 million to the joint project, with the rest coming from Pacifica and State Parks).

Pacifica and RRM Design Group also recently completed the design of the hotel portion of the project, and it is being reviewed by State Parks and the city, he said.

Once completed, the hotel and conference center could bring in up to $1.5 million in transient occupancy and property taxes annually, Shoals said. But the economic impact of the entire facility could be much larger if it acts as a catalyst, drawing businesses, tourists and potentially new residents to Grover Beach.

“I would say when all is said and done, between $11 million and $15 million could be annually generated because of this,” he said. “I think it’s really an exciting time for the city.”

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie