Extra dollars to upgrade Convention Center backed
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade needs a cutting-edge convention center, county commissioners stressed at a committee meeting last week.
But one questioned where it should be.
Amid pleas from colleagues to use convention tax dollars to improve the Miami Beach facility, Commissioner Rebeca Sosa introduced another idea: build a new center elsewhere in the county instead.
"We have to start from scratch," she said.
Visitors complain about Miami Beach's heavy traffic and lack of parking — so put a new and improved convention center in a more accessible area, she suggested.
Miami Beach is the epicenter for hotels and nightclubs, Commissioner Sally Heyman argued. And the center there is a county asset, she said.
"You have some things that go beyond a district."
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez also pushed to renovate the existing facility.
"I believe that we really need to invest in the convention center," he said.
Additional money should be available for the center this year, administrators at last week's Airport and Tourism Committee meeting.
A 2001 arrangement sends an annual $4.5 million in convention development taxes to the City of Miami Beach for the center, providing for additional monies as tax collections rise.
Slower tourism after 9/11 meant lower revenues for years following, but $700,000 should be available to send to the city this year, Finance Director Rachel Baum said.
She expects about $2 million next year.
A convention center revamp would also be backed by $55 million in earmarked bond money.
Should an agreement to build a new $525 million stadium for the Florida Marlins fall through, about $60 million in convention taxes would become available for other projects, Ms. Baum said at the request of Mr. Gimenez.
His question upset Ms. Sosa.
"It's not an automatic that "I'm going to blow up the Marlins stadium and give it to someone else,'" she said, stressing that "we need to divide the pie throughout Miami-Dade County."
Reallocating the money would require a commission vote.
"I have great interest in convention center improvements now that we're down to just two," Ms. Heyman said.
William Talbert III, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the same.
"We need to improve that facility ... so we can be competitive," he said.
Doug Tober, senior general manager of the center, said in a recent interview that it's becoming increasingly popular for cities, even those not known for tourism, to build new centers.
"It becomes important that you have something new, something fresh, to sell to people," he said. "It's not just functionality. It has to be an experience for people."
It has been about 20 years since the Miami Beach center's last renovation, Mr. Tober said, though it's seen $50 million in improvements, such as new roofing, during the last 10 years.
What most say the center needs now is a ballroom facility, "something we don't have that most centers in our class have," he said.
It could cost $50 million to $75 million to add the ballroom and make other minor fixes.
The county has long supported a revamp.
Miami Beach officials have hesitated in the past.
Upon her election late last year, Mayor Matti Bower said undertaking the center revamp would mean bumping other projects off the Beach's books.
Beach commissioners agreed last year that if the county wants to do the expansion, it can.