News: Convention Center Expansion Project

By David L. Snelling

Following the Florida State Legislature’s decision to reject funding for the renovation of the historic Miami Beach Convention Center, the city has decided to be the white knight of proponents’ dashed hopes.

The Miami Beach City Commission is searching for a consultant to put in charge of overseeing the massive reconstruction project of the 500,000 square-feet facility, which has hosted countless events, including worldwide and national conventions, musical concerts, tradeshows, and memorable sporting events in the annals of its 54-year-old history.

The chosen firm’s most arduous task is seeking private and public money to finance the $640 million master plan project to help expand the facility to help meet the growing population’s needs and shows.

The city reportedly has earmarked about $55 million for revamping the Convention Center, and will pay the consultant $100,000 for the job.

Once selected, the consultant also will manage the process of the designs for the renovation project and assisting city officials on the competitive bidding procedure to bring in the best contractors who have a history of renovating historic and large buildings.

Once known as the “Crown Jewel” of Miami Beach before South Beach became a pop culture phenomenon with ritzy hotels and restaurants, nightclubs and celebrities sightings, the Convention Center’s upgrade master plan includes expansion to 700,000 square feet, adding one million square feet to the center, an additional 81,000 square feet of previously non-existent ballroom area, an onsight garage that would upgrade parking space to 4,100.

The facility currently allows parking for 3,700 vehicles, according to the renovation master plan.

But securing funding for the project won’t be easy.

Miami Beach City Commissioner Michael Gongorra said he was disappointed state officials rejected two bills that could’ve financed the master plan during the recent Legislation Session.

He said the city’s tourism and cultural sales taxes generate a lot of revenues for the state to provide municipal services throughout Florida.

“This is the most important project we are working on for several years to come,” he said during a phone interview. “It’s going to be difficult to build it when we don’t have direct sources for financing.”

One suggestion the city is considering: partnering with the local hotel and resort industry to renovate the Convention Center with a new hotel and resort, Gongorra said.

The idea would close the financial hole significantly.

But the recommendation was placed on hold after McClatchy sold the Miami Herald building to Malaysia Bhd, a casino operating giant, for $236 million, which plans to build a hotel and resort complex on the property.

“That plays a role on what we are doing on Miami Beach,” he said.

Gongorra said the city is mulling how far the expansion of the building should go.

“We are taking into consideration on the impact it would have on traffic and residential areas,” he said.

Though the renovation plan seems enticing to proponents and long-time Miami Beach residents, some are pessimistic over the chances of securing funding to complete the project because of the effects of a sour economy.

Miami Beach is hoping to have a consultant in place by the end of the summer, but resident Timothy Holder said he doesn’t see the start of the work in the near future.

“We’re talking about a lot of money needed to fix it up,” said the 68-year-old retired college professor, who attended many events at the center since 1976. “With the way the economy is going, I don’t see it happening right now. But I commend the city for its efforts to get it done.”

David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association, said he has some major concerns with the expansion of the facility, and especially if it includes an 1000-room hotel to replace the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts.

He said there may not be enough room for expansion of the Convention Center with the existing and future hotels, pitting the hotels against each other for some stiff competition.

Furthermore, he said the hotels and resorts on Miami Beach are concerned over Malaysia’s decision to build a hotel resort and casino on the property it purchased.

“That’s a formidable competition,” Kelsey said. “Placing a hotel with the renovation of the Convention Center makes the hotels compete against ourselves, placing us at disadvantage with having to lower our prices. We are concerned with the future hotel at Downtown Miami and if they include one at the Convention Center.”

Kelsey said Miami Beach should focus on promoting the city as a year-round tourism and cultural attraction.

“Everyone would benefit from it,” he said.

Spanning four city blocks of palm tree lined streets and located in the heart of  South Beach/Art Deco District, the Miami Beach Convention Center is a meeting, convention, tradeshow and consumer show paradise, according to the city of Miami Beach’s website.

Amenities at the facility include a business center, board room, cyber café, box offices, concierge desks, concession stands, show offices and a uniquely designed skywalk that features a center pod with a buffet & cocktail lounge and an unrestricted view of all four exhibit halls.

The Convention Center is home to major annual shows such as the South Florida International Auto Show, Miami International Boat Show, the largest in the U.S. and North America’s most important contemporary art fair, Art Basel Miami Beach.  Furthermore, the facility hosts local and national corporate meetings of all sizes for organizations including; SAP America, Nike, Microsoft, Best Buy and IBM.

But with the growing population of people and tourists attending the major events that’s also getting larger, the building is in need of expanding.

“We are in need of it because we are not building a new one for 50-plus years,” Gongorra said. “We are going to plan it right and build it right for the purpose the Convention Center plays a major role as the Cultural and Tourism leader for Miami Beach.”

The last time the convention center underwent renovation was in 1989, when the city spent $92 million to double the size of the facility, according to the current renovation master plan.

In the last six years, the facility has had over $35 million in continuing upgrades, including complete renovations of all restrooms, full carpet replacement, and installation of a state-of-the-art telecommunications and networking infrastructure.

The ancient history of the Convention Center echoes through the halls of the building that played host to some of the most historic political and sporting events.

There, Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston in 1964 to become then the youngest world boxing champion in history, and hosted the 1968 and 1972 Republican National Convention as well as the 1972 Democratic National Convention.

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