Hardest task in convention center upgrade: sell it to voters
By Michael Lewis
The hardest part of any plan to improve the Miami Beach Convention Center to attain the quality we need to compete for meeting business won't be deciding what would work, but figuring out how to get Miami Beach voters to buy the result.
No doubt improvement is vital. The convention center — Miami-Dade County's prime showcase for meetings and conventions — has slipped to a third-tier facility in a global metropolis.
Can anyone say embarrassment?
Beach voters recognize the problem. They agreed this year to tax themselves to upgrade the convention hub. That's a major stride.
A big hurdle, however, will be the word "big." Many in the city don't want development around the center to increase traffic or compete with businesses. There will be pressure to do the least possible.
That's a problem, because the two development teams at work on plans for the 52-acre area aren't going to suggest just adding a ballroom and upgrading convention space.
They'll look broadly at what can be done with a large swath of city-owned space to not only revamp the convention center but also build a mixed-use project that will become a business engine not only for the community but for the development team participants.
Members of the teams vying for the right to run the project include experts involved in retail, entertainment, residential and hotels. Such components are logical in the final plan. The developers aren't in the game for charity.
The outcome is also likely to be good for the community. While the city will need to vet details careful, this is the one remaining opportunity for Miami Beach to augment its nearby cultural complex and add visitor appeal in a big way, while also serving residents well — and adding needed jobs.
Roadblocks the plan could meet arise from natural resistance to change, whatever lingering though misguided visitor antipathy remains in Miami Beach — the city was once happy to have visitor dollars but unhappy to have the visitors themselves — and a perfectly valid concern that the city not yield valuable lands without solid assurances of adequate paybacks.
The city will also need strong negotiators. That's a particular problem today, when Miami Beach is looking for a "permanent" city manager.
Whoever is manager will need to know how to work with public-private projects and be smart enough to recruit exceptional outside talent to deal with developers who are in every sense big league.
Think of how Miami-Dade County officials rolled over for the Marlins in the baseball stadium deal to understand why city officials — however good they may be — won't be nearly good enough to negotiate this package and flyspeck every phrase of the contract.
But because this deal will no doubt lease out city land, it's certain to warrant a vote by the public. That, in turn, will require a good sales job in the best sense of the term by City Hall and the visitor industry, both in Miami Beach and countywide.
After all, other than our airport and seaport the Miami Beach Convention Center is the single most important visitor facility this county has. Millions in county funds will go into the city's convention center upgrade, but nobody but Miami Beach has a formal say in the project's scope, financing or timing. The deal is the city's alone to cut.
That's why it's vital that the visitor industry countywide weigh in to support a practical upgrade. While voters of Miami Beach did the right thing in taxing themselves for an upgrade, they did so in principle, without knowing what it might entail or who it would involve.
Once all details are known and a deal has been negotiated — and that's not likely to be for a year or so — voters will be facing a concrete plan.
That in a way is like the stadium the county built for the Marlins: many in the public supported the concept, but now that they know what the ballpark deal actually did and are stuck paying off a $3 billion debt, support has evaporated.
Miami Beach officials will have to not only agree to the scope of a plan and then negotiate it well but sell the end result to a public that has every right, given flawed deals elsewhere in the county, to be wary of public-private partnerships.
Business should encourage city officials to not only choose well in planning a convention center district, but then negotiate well and sell the final product frankly, factually and fairly. After years of failures in getting a vital center upgrade, we can't afford to stumble over the final steps.
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