Convention & Visitors Bureau shopping on Miami Beach as deadline nears for Watson Island headquarters
By Paola Iuspa
While shopping for office space on Miami Beach, Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau officials also say they are close to an agreement to build a headquarters on Miami's Watson Island.
Terms still to be agreed upon are on the Miami City Commission's Aug. 22 agenda, said Al West, who oversees bureau finances.
The bureau and the city must decide soon. If the project isn't started by year's end, the bureau will lose some funds earmarked for the $11.7 million Watson Island Regional Aviation & Visitors Center.
"We still have time to negotiate," said William Talbert III, bureau president & CEO.
One of the stickiest points in negotiations is the design and lease of a press center to serve bureau and Miami city officials. After months of debate, Commissioner Tomás Regalado said the bureau has proposed a draft for the press center that he supports.
In the draft, the bureau will pay the lease and the city will have access to it, Mr. West said. The media center is to be one of many components of a project that has been on the drawing board for at least five years.
Another issue for discussion centers on paying for underground utilities installation, said Laura Billberry, city director of asset management.
The city, bureau and Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority, a city-created group in charge of marketing and sponsoring sports and community events, agreed in 1997 to build and operate the visitor center. But recently Miami Beach officials asked the bureau to consider moving its headquarters across Biscayne Bay.
Mr. Talbert, whose office is on Brickell Avenue until April 2004, agreed to consider the Beach, though the bureau and the city were already planning the Watson Island center.
This week, Mr. Talbert said he is happy with progress toward the Watson Island site, but until an agreement is signed, he will look at Miami Beach space. He said the current tenants' market, where supply surpasses demand, could land the group a bargain.
If the City of Miami and bureau approve terms, the authority must vote on the deal. While the proposed contract calls for the bureau pitching in $7 million for construction, Miami would reimburse the group $3.2 million in free rent, Mr. Talbert said. A remaining $3.8 million is to come from Miami-Dade convention development taxes, but is subject to construction beginning before Dec. 31.
The Florida Department of Transportation is to foot another $4.7 million for the Watson Island center.
If the bureau pulls out, Miami staff has said the city may not be able to build the structure. In addition to bureau offices and a visitors' center, the 5-acre project is to include a museum, heliport and seaplane airstrip, plus the press center.
Until recently, the Sports and Exhibition Authority was going to move to the center as well. But that changed, said James Jenkins, the authority executive director, who said they gave up the space in part to make room for the press center.
Miami commissioners also plan to discuss a contract making the bureau the project's manager, making it responsible for construction and cost overruns.