Study urges convention planners to improve flexibility of Beach center; plan for downtown needs
By Paola Iuspa
Although a just-released study shows no immediate need for additional convention space in Miami-Dade, it recommends creation of a downtown convention center if demand increases.
William Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the need for a new facility would be feasible only after the Miami Beach Convention Center runs out of space, which could happen in six years.
"Today, a downtown facility would take business away from the Miami Beach Convention Center," said Mr. Talbert, whose group commissioned the report. "And nobody wants to do that."
Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez said Tuesday there is no need now for a new facility.
The Miami Beach center, with 645,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space, has an average use rate of 79%, according to the report.
Mr. Talbert said this is the first time a countywide study of meeting space was made with input from Miami-Dade, Miami and Miami Beach officials and independent planners and consultants.
The 25-page report aimed to assess needs for the Miami Beach Convention Center, Miami Convention Center/Knight Center and the Coconut Grove Convention Center to better serve clients and increase the industry's economic impact, Mr. Talbert said.
"Local governments will receive the report. Each government will look at it and move forward with the recommendations," he said.
Mr. Gonzalez said the study also offers recommendations on how the convention development tax, collected from tourists staying in hotels, should be allocated.
"To allocate the convention development tax you need to have a needs assessment in place," to disburse the funds, he said.
The $85,000 study, paid for by the bureau, was produced by Convention Sports & Leisure International of Minneapolis, he said. Research for it was done prior to the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks and resulting economic downturn.
One recommendation called for building a 50,000-square-foot, multi-purpose hall in the Miami Beach Convention Center to allow dining and provide general assembly space. The addition would support the exhibit space but should not accommodate events that area hotels could handle, the study recommended.
Mr. Gonzalez said he found the study to be on target.
At this point, he said, "we don't know how the recommendations could be impacted by the Sept. 11 events. How we proceed from here is our own decision."
Another direction called for upgrading the look of the exterior and common areas of downtown's James L. Knight Center, 400 SE Second Ave., which offers a fixed-seat auditorium in addition to meeting and ballroom space.
Three groups control different parts of the Miami-owned center. The city operates the James L. Knight Center auditorium and a banquet hall. The attached Hyatt Hotel operates its own ballroom and meeting space. The University of Miami has meeting rooms on the third floor.
While the entire center is in need also of new technology, the week-old study suggested reassessing the purpose of the auditorium, which was deemed as under-used.
Christina Abrams, Miami's director of conferences, conventions & public facilities, said she agreed with recommendations calling for a face-lift for the Knight Center.
She said she did not concur with the suggestion to reconfigure the center's auditorium. She said there is no other facility in the city that could provide space for company stakeholder meetings, small concerts and corporate assemblies.
The report also recommended redefining the function of the Coconut Grove Convention Center, often used as an exhibition facility for local crowds.
Ms. Abrams said she agreed with marketing the Coconut Grove facility as a festival hall for community events rather than a convention facility, with many others competing for the same market.
The Grove center has about 150,000 square feet of flat floor space in several halls and was created by renovating an airplane hangar. The report said more events could be booked there if it were promoted for consumer events, banquets, receptions, music and entertainment.
"Now we have a clear understanding of how it should be positioned," Ms. Abrams said. "We will do a more detailed study before we ask the city to appropriate funds for any renovations."
Ms. Abrams said she also found "very interesting" the idea of a new downtown Miami convention center for exhibits and trade shows, she said.
As envisioned, it would be surrounded by restaurants, retail and entertainment facilities. Although the complex may not be needed for six years, the report encouraged leaders to start searching for sites and acquiring land. Mr. Talbert said no sites have yet been identified.
Ms. Abrams said the City of Miami Downtown Development Authority also likes the concept and its members are were considering hiring a consultant to study the feasibility of that proposal. Patti Allen, authority executive director, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.