Committee: Initial Miami Beach Convention Center plans should spare no expense
By Scott E. Pacheco
Tourism pundits say there's no reason the Miami Beach Convention Center can't join the top echelon of meeting venues.
But to get there will take forward-thinking and far more than the $55 million in county bond money that is committed to improving the aging facility.
"No doubt [it will cost more] — if you want to do it the right way," said Stuart Blumberg, co-chair of a steering committee pushing the upgrade. "If you just want to fix up the box you can probably do it for $55 million."
The convention center steering committee, formed to help guide renovation, is to hold a charrette-style meeting at 11 a.m. Jan. 29 to advance conceptualization. Architect Arquitectonica has an Aug. 3 deadline to create a master plan.
Officials are adamant they won't be restrained by cost in planning a world-class center.
"I'm concerned when I hear "Let's spend what we have now,'" said Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower on Friday at the steering committee's kickoff meeting.
She said she understands that ideas may have to be scaled back, but she doesn't want to limit the potential from the get-go.
"If we can afford the Marlins stadium, we can afford an up-to-date convention center to support economic development," she said.
City Manager Jorge Gonzalez agreed.
"It's not our mission to figure out how it gets paid for," he said. "Let's not limit the possibilities.… We'll be limited by realities some day."
Robert Wennett, a Beach resident and member of both the Lincoln Road Merchants Association and the steering committee, also pushed for big thinking.
"We need to start with putting the most outrageous goals on the table," he said.
And when it comes time to get extra funds, Mr. Blumberg said, a way will be found.
"If Arquitectonica comes back with something that is really exciting and doable and functional, we'll get the money. It's as simple as that," Mr. Blumberg said. "We'll go out and get the money to do it."
While many design features of the master plan will come to light in subsequent meetings, there is a consensus of need for connectivity with Lincoln Road and the surrounding attractions, just as San Antonio's convention center is connected to its Riverwalk.
"We've got to set ourselves apart," said Bernardo Fort-Brescia, Arquitectonica principal.
Also in the thinking: outdoor meeting and congregating space could take advantage of Miami's warm climate.
And the committee expects to look hard at how space on convention center property could be reworked to fit in a large hotel or a center expansion. Among preliminary ideas would be moving parking to the center's roof.
Mr. Gonzalez said it's vital that renovations position the center to be competitive down the road.
"What are we going to need in 2025?" he said. "Let's get there now so that everybody is chasing us."
One thing the revamped facility will not try to do is compete with destinations such as Orlando, Las Vegas or Chicago, which offer upwards of 2 million square feet of exhibition space.
Instead, the team feels, Miami Beach, which currently has 502,000 square feet of exhibition space, is a better comparison with San Antonio and San Diego, which respectively offer 426,600 and 525,700 square feet of exhibition space.
John T. Kaatz of Convention Sports & Leisure, which studied the center in 2001 and has updated that study, said it doesn't make much sense for Miami Beach to grow exhibition space because meetings that require 1 million or 2 million square feet would severely test the city's infrastructure.
"There are relatively few events that Miami Beach could attract at a million square feet of space. It's very significant impact in terms of truck traffic," he said. Miami Beach is attractive to "high-end corporate and association events looking for a quality destination as opposed to simply a massive facility."
What the Miami Beach center lacks is flexible meeting space, a ballroom-type facility that could be used for banquets, meetings and receptions. Miami-Dade is one of the few major destinations in the country without one, Mr. Kaatz said, and a flexible space of about 100,000 square feet would add a crucial element.
"One of the things Miami Beach is lacking is this multi-use space," he said. "In terms of new space development, that has been a priority."