Put long-awaited convention center upgrade on fast track
By Michael Lewis
Almost five years after voters funded a vital $55 million upgrade of the Miami Beach Convention Center, a county committee last week finally pushed it forward to a full commission vote.
The commission shouldn't think twice about saying yes July 7. This economic development spending — unlike hundreds of millions about to be wasted on a baseball stadium — would actually multiply visitors and jobs.
Kudos to Rebeca Sosa for pushing an upgrade through the Recreation, Culture & Tourism Committee despite inexplicable heel-dragging by Bruno Barreiro, who represents Miami Beach. While it is a city amenity, Ms. Sosa is right on the mark in noting that "the convention center is not Miami Beach only. The convention center is Miami-Dade County."
Mr. Barreiro hasn't been alone in slowing an upgrade that's key to besting competitors for top gatherings. Getting Miami Beach, the county and industry groups on the same page has been sticky for years.
It shouldn't be. The center got its last major upgrade more than 20 years ago and has long since fallen out of the top tier of convention sites.
Indeed, the aim now is not to leapfrog back to the top but to acknowledge that Miami-Dade can't match Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlanta or New Orleans for big conventions but with proper facilities and marketing can capture a fair slice of smaller but heavy-spending business groups lured by Miami's location and specific advantages.
Ms. Sosa's effort to get an upgrade moving surprised those who'd been trying to bring the center into the 21st century. Armed with the decade's fourth study proving need, Miami Beach, county and tourist industry leaders have been meeting and were making progress. Now Ms. Sosa, who wasn't involved and was unaware of the studies, has leaped in to spearhead action.
As those involved envision it, upgrades involve no new buildings.
The city would create a 32,000-square-foot ballroom — two-thirds of what once was recommended — inside the 1.1-million-square-foot, city-owned center. While Beach hotels have large ballrooms, convention planners don't want to bus thousands of delegates to a hotel for a dinner.
The upgrade also would add a rooftop garden for receptions and 16 meeting and breakout rooms. A long-sought parking garage isn't in the plan.
Even so, these upgrades could help the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau lure upscale meetings. That means big money, because an average attendee spends $1,430.56 — above $2 billion a year here in total spending now. More gatherings mean more guests spending $1,430.56.
Actually, we have enough bed tax money for a far better upgrade, with far more community payback — but the county in its limited wisdom hijacked those hundreds of millions for a baseball stadium whose paybacks are negligible. So we've got to live with just the $55 million from general obligation bonds that remains after the $645 million stadium's tourist tax handout.
The current slump might seem to argue against investing in a visitor industry that's declined in both spending and jobs, but just the opposite is true. More useful facilities would offer a leg up on competitive cities and would be a powerful magnet as the economy improves.
A revamp would be timed well for a post-recession sales blitz by the convention bureau, which deems our center non-competitive for just the kind of big-spending business meetings that we most want.
We don't need the handicap of an outdated center. In the 1990s a shortage of first-class hotel rooms hampered meeting and convention sales. Now that we have abundant topnotch rooms to support the center, it's the center itself that's a drag on filling those rooms.
And while Commissioner Sosa wants to not just upgrade the center but also explore an attached hotel, a hotel is easier studied than financed in today's business climate. A large Miami Beach hotel away from the water in the next few years would be problematic.
Even if the commission passes Ms. Sosa's plan untouched next month, loosening of purse strings on the $55 million that taxpayers long ago approved won't be immediate. Her motion is simply to study alternatives and funding sources.
But unless this week's bond sales for a stadium are derailed by either very high interest rates or a court order, the baseball express is about to carry away for 40 years all county funding options for a convention center beyond the approved $55 million. That leaves a single source that, unlike baseball, has won voter approval.
No reason to delay further. After four studies and voters' OK, the commission must ensure that convention center expansion is immediately funded and work begins soon.
That would quickly add construction jobs and hand the convention bureau powerful weapons in the battle to win top-level meetings that bring in big money, fill current hotels at solid rates and create vital permanent jobs.
We've waited too long as is. Please, no more foot-dragging.