Current Florida Marlins stadium deal could put convention center upgrades in doubt
By Scott E. Pacheco
County Manager George Burgess has added up the dollars — about $250 million of them — that have gone to "provide funding to support" expansion and updating of the Miami Beach Convention Center.
But some say the numbers don't add up, and that a successful Florida Marlins stadium deal — which could suck up as much as $326 million in bed tax dollars — may spell the end of long-term efforts to enhance the center, which some call the economic engine of the area's tourism industry.
"Given the financing plan that was given out by the county… there will be no money for unusual maintenance or nonrecurring physical plant investment," said Miami Beach Commissioner Victor Diaz. "There will not be sufficient money to meet what consultants have said is needed to make the convention center competitive again."
Mr. Burgess in a stadium-supporting memo to county commissioners said funding committed to the convention center "exceeds $250 million." He outlined an equation that included $55 million in Building Better Communities bond money; $15 million in 2001 for convention center improvements, $46.5 million for center improvements from a 1996 amendment to an interlocal agreement and $4.5 million per year from the Convention Development Tax (CDT) to Miami Beach, which is to continue as long as Performing Arts Center or baseball stadium outstanding debt remains.
But the numbers are misleading and a stadium deal would effectively kill major center upgrades, says Stuart Blumberg, president and CEO of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association.
"People believe that there is $260 million to fix up the center and there's not," he said. "Based upon what I have seen and heard on projections into the future to fund the stadium, if the stadium passes, based on the presentations that are to be made on March 9 — there will not be an enhancement in the future of the convention center."
Mr. Blumberg said while the $55 million remains, a study in mid-2007 showed the price tag rose to $85 million for enhancements, including a junior ballroom and about 18 additional meeting rooms. The rest of the money Mr. Burgess cites was not for physical structure improvements, he said.
Commissioner Diaz said both Mr. Blumberg and Mr. Burgess are wrong about the amount that is available, saying the actual number is somewhere between $55 million and $260 million, according to information he sought from Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez.
Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower was part of the Miami Beach City Commission that voted to endorse the renovations in spring 2007 but declined to pledge money or resources to the project over neighborhood improvements. However, once elected mayor in November 2007, she and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez spoke several times about making the center more competitive.
In October, Ms. Bower went on record that she "would be happy with a new" convention center.
The collaboration led to the launching of an update of a 2001 Conventions Sports & Leisure feasibility study to see what is needed now to make the center competitive.
The earlier study called for adding a 50,000-square-foot multipurpose facility.
The preliminary recommendations of the study update show much more is needed than just the multipurpose facility, said Mr. Diaz.
Recommendations include an expansion in exhibit space in addition to a ballroom, an additional 25,000 square feet of meeting space, a unique, iconic alternative outdoor rooftop venue, and development of another convention center hotel on the Beach, he said.
Another important indication, Mr. Diaz said, is when the convention center opened in the 1950s it was the fourth-largest convention facility in the US; today it is ranked 28th.
The Miami Beach City Commission on Jan. 28 adopted a resolution "urging Miami-Dade County to fully support and prioritize the funding needs of the Miami Beach Convention Center with Convention Development Tax receipts."
On Feb. 4, Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce President Wendy Kallergis and Chairman Aaron Perry penned a letter "strongly" endorsing the commission's resolution.
"I've been sitting on this board for six years — this issue has come up so many times in so many different contexts," Mr. Perry said in an interview. "We need to do something with our convention center. How are we going to fund and feed our growth to be able to support a stadium without the appropriate accommodations?"
Mr. Perry said convention center upgrades need to come first. Once it starts paying off in bed tax collection increases, he said, a stadium becomes more fiscally feasible.
"We lose business every day to our city because of inadequate ballroom and convention center space," Mr. Perry said. "If you want to tie in the convention center to this whole [stadium] issue — one needs the other. A healthy, well-constructed convention center feeds the revenue that will eventually feed the [stadium] deal."
Mr. Diaz, who joined the commission in December, stated earlier that the convention center is integral to the growth of South Florida as a whole.
"We have to decide if we are going to be a convention center city, and if we are going to be a convention center city, we need to decide how we can be a top 10 convention city in the year 2010," he said. "It's not just about the future of Miami Beach, it is the future of South Florida, because if we really were a convention center destination, top-five city, the boat would float for everybody, not just for Miami Beach."
Mr. Burgess, Mayor Bower and City Manager Gonzalez did not return phone calls. William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, was out of town and could not be reached.
Mr. Blumberg said there haven't been many hoteliers or restaurateurs speaking up about the potential loss of future bed tax dollars.
"Honestly, I think they are occupied, and rightly so, with the economic situation that's hit them now," he said. "If your occupancy and rates are what you are hearing now, this is the last thing that they would be concerned about."