News: Future of Miami Beach Convention Center Under Consideration

The future of the Miami Beach Convention Center could be one of an expanded, enhanced and aesthetically improved facility that attracts overlapping midsize events throughout the calendar year.

Or it could be nothing at all.

The fate of the MBCC, long considered a key generator in the South Florida tourist economy, is being considered by a convention center steering committee and will eventually by political leaders on both side of the Intracoastal.

“We’re very early in the process,” said steering committee member and former Miami Beach Commissioner Saul Gross.

Although the committee recently met for only the second time, aspects of the eventual plan began to take shape when master plan architects, Arquitectonica, presented their concepts at the meeting.

“Some of the items discussed for the architects to develop further: looking at the possibility of enhanced multi-purpose/ballroom space; looking at the orientation of the building to maximize the building’s connection with nearby amenities, such as Lincoln Road, the New World Symphony, etc.; looking at outdoor venue space; looking at potential solutions for parking; and the possibility of a convention center hotel,” said Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez.

The key components of Arquitectonica’s presentation are additions, scope and configuration.

Gross said he recognizes several distinct areas of concentration. One is a two-story building on the “P Lot” — west, adjacent to the convention center, perhaps with ballroom, multi-use space and related parking. Reconfiguration is another key concept, notably in the potential restoration of 18th Street and the closing of Convention Center Drive.

“There is also the possibility of a hotel on the site,” Gross said. “I don’t think anyone is looking at doing that now, but it would be part of the master plan. There is room for it.”

A new façade essentially facing Lincoln Road is also part of the conceptual envisioning.

Although Arquitectonica’s plan called for expanding available convention space to up to 1 million square feet, some quietly believe that figure is unlikely.

“There has been discussion of how much space we wanted to add and I think the idea is to get up to around 800,000 square feet,” Gross said. “I think we’re not as focused on massive conventions. The main idea is to be able to stage more than one event at the convention center at a time. Conventions have three stages — loading in, loading out and the actual event. It would be good if we were able to stagger them. We’re still in the very early stages but I think that’s where we’re likely to head.”

Fernandez said the goal of potential improvements is to position the MBCC ahead of the center’s competitive peer group.

“For example, current hotel stock is unlikely to be able to support a facility expansion that would compete with business that currently can only be accommodated in Las Vegas or Orlando (locations with 1 million square feet in exhibit hall space alone),” Fernandez said. “Instead, the goal is to identify those amenities that will ensure that this facility can compete with facilities such as San Diego and San Antonio — two facilities with comparable exhibit and meeting capacity, but that are considered in the top five of convention business locations.

“It has been more than 20 years since the last major expansion of the Miami Beach Convention Center, and the desire is not only to make sure that we are meeting the needs of meeting planners today, but that we anticipate the needs in the future,” Fernandez continued. “In other words, instead of trying to play ‘catch up’ to what is being provided at other facilities today, we want to be the facility that everyone else is trying to catch up to.”

Fernandez said the planning process for the convention center master plan began with a comprehensive market and trends analysis that looked at precisely this issue, and provided recommendations on what the facility needed based on meeting planners’ selection criteria.

“That information is being used by the Steering Committee and the architects to develop the master plan,” Fernandez said. “For example, meeting planners indicated that they needed at least 50,000 square feet of multi-purpose/ballroom space that can be used for banquets, plenary sessions, large meetings, social events, etc. As such, the master plan process will look at how the facility can accommodate this need.”

From there to here

The need for improvements to the MBCC has been escalating for years. Once a leading convention destination, Miami has fallen well behind the nation’s leading convention host cities. Miami Beach’s compact nature, the relatively small size of the MBCC and what is seen by many as inadequate facilities have been key factors in its diminishing popularity. It is also one of the few convention centers without a convention center hotel. While the city has helped fund the development of “convention center hotels,” none is incorporated into the actual facility.

“We’ve slipped to 30-something in terms of conventions in the country because the convention center has fallen behind times,” Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Gongora told the SunPost.

Some question whether or not the political will exists on the mainland side for an expansion of the MBCC. South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association President David Kelsey points out that the Downtown Development Authority has signaled that it wants to support the development of some sort of convention facility in Miami.

“I think one of the key goals of the DDA is a downtown convention center,” Kelsey said. “Obviously that would then compete with Miami Beach.”

Fernandez confirmed that the City of Miami Beach is familiar with this possibility.

“While we know of these other efforts, we believe that the destination is better benefited from focusing its resources on enhancing our regional asset,” Fernandez said. “The Miami Beach Convention Center is the regional convention facility. Large conventions benefit the entire area, as hotel rooms on the mainland are part of the room block necessary to accommodate large conventions. Additionally, some of the proposed enhancements include an executive meeting center to attract corporate meetings for whom our high-end hotel room stock is attractive. The master planning process is proceeding consistent with the discussions that have been ongoing for the past few years, the data that has been collected on trends and the input of the stakeholders.”

County partnership is essential to any possible MBCC improvements. The issue only moved to the front burner for discussion when Miami-Dade County asserted the availability of $55 million in bond money.

The county then effectively told Miami Beach to put together a plan and bring it to the county. There was no financial cap put on potential proposals.

Soon thereafter, the convention center steering committee was formed.

Next Steps

Fernandez said the committee’s work should be complete by the summer.

“That process will conclude with a ‘basis of design report’ that provides up to 30 percent drawings for the improvements that have been agreed upon and that have been vetted through community design workshops and other public meetings,” Fernandez said. “It is also expected that those recommended improvements will have been agreed to and recommended by the Steering Committee (representing stakeholders such as the city, the county, the GMCVB, VCA, Hotel Association, facility users, the facility management company, industry experts, etc.). The City Commission will ultimately approve the basis of design report, which then allows the city to proceed with the building development process (completion of drawings, issuance of competitive processes for general contractors, etc.).”

Not everyone is convinced that the process will prove valuable in the near future at all.

“It might just be an academic process because the county isn’t going to be able to pay for it anyway,” said an informed source who did not want to be identified. “It might just be a wish list for the future.”

Some, off the record, have even suggested that the process might be a precursor to extending the convention center redevelopment scheme, which diverts tax money from going to the county and to the city’s general fund into a pool for use exclusively for development in the microregion around the convention center. That designation is set to expire in the next decade if not renewed with the accord of both city and county authorities.

If Miami Beach officials recognize that the county might be hard-pressed to provide funding for proposed convention center improvements, the city administration is playing it close to the vest.

“We are confident that any additional funding resources will be identified in concert with the county,” Fernandez said.

“I’m just so happy to see that after all these years we’re finally talking about this in detail,” said Mayor Matti Bower. “The convention center needs so much and these ideas are a great start.”

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