Mayor's prods, county funds vital to convention center fix
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez stated the obvious when he told a visitor industry meeting we must expand the Miami Beach Convention Center now, but his call lent urgency to an upgrade that's 20 years overdue.
Having the top county official take the lead was vital for a choice entangled in internal issues in Miami Beach, which owns the center but has never figured out exactly what expansion should entail, who would propel it or how to fund it.
The city plans to select an outside developer next month. That choice in turn is likely to spell out the project's scope, costs and funding sources.
Don't expect easy or definitive decisions. The final say must come from a city hall that for years couldn't decide if it even wanted to bring its main economic engine, its convention hub, into the 21st century.
Had the city been unified and decisive, its wisest course would have been to itself determine the scope, shape and strategy of a modern convention center and only then seek bids. That would have required a realistic assessment of needs and possibilities, a daunting task for many governments and seemingly beyond reach in Miami Beach.
Instead, the city is relying on developers who target real estate success rather than meeting and convention growth. A successful developer plan might not maximize visitor industry benefits for the city and county.
Even the best convention center upgrade couldn't restore this county to the top tier of meeting sites. When the center was last expanded in 1989 it was fourth-largest in the US. By this year it had fallen to 30th.
While our aim shouldn't be biggest, we should be analyzing our niche — including the meeting market we most desire and where we can realistically succeed — and developing to achieve that goal rather than merely looking for "larger."
Advice of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, at whose meeting Mayor Gimenez spoke, must be central to that decision-making. The bureau, marketing arm of our visitor industry, well knows what kinds of targeted business we could attract and what amenities those meetings and conventions would need.
The city today can count on $155 million to expand the center. About $100 million of that would come from a tax that Miami Beach voters approved just three months ago to expand the center, a show of both faith and need. Miami-Dade pledged the other $55 million from capital bonds that voters approved in 2004.
But $155 million seems far too little. Hence, the request to develop nearby city lands to fund convention center growth. Those revenues depend on what developers propose on surrounding land — a choice that should have been made in the city's request for proposals rather than left to developers.
A funding wildcard is the county. The convention center is a countywide amenity, just at a Miami Marlins stadium built at almost $3 billion total cost was intended to be far more than just an amenity of the City of Miami, on whose land the county built.
A convention center generates spinoff spending in a way no baseball stadium does. A 2011 study found a competitive convention center would add 3,852 permanent jobs and $332 million annual economic activity.
So if a center upgrade cost $1 billion, the county economy would recoup all spending in just three years, a lightning-fast return, after which money would keep flowing in.
With that kind of payback, county hall should be itching to not just rehab the convention center but make a big, significant statement in support of the visitor industry with a major public investment.
In particular, county hall should analyze its 2004 bond issue to see what spending that's still planned it could delay or shift.
For example, $20 million of it is earmarked for the Coconut Grove Playhouse, which has been closed five years. While saving the building would be nice, as an investment the convention center is light years ahead. Study other bond uses similarly for immediate economic impact.
Spending to expand the convention center will surely repay this county as most spending never could.
That's why it's so vital that Mayor Gimenez trumpeted the need to act now. We're counting on his continued leadership to first help Miami Beach make the best choices as it expands the convention center, then be sure the money is available.
A 23-year wait for convention center expansion has run decades too long. We can't afford to dither any longer.
To read the full article and the rest of the Miami Today issue, GO TO e-MIAMI TODAY, an exact replica of the printed edition.