News: Miami Beach Commissioners Pledge to Reinvent the Convention Center District

After a decade of talk and some false starts, Miami Beach is looking to finally modernize the convention center.

Last week the city issued a Request For Qualifications to lure developers interested in producing a master plan for the Convention Center District.

The goal is to not only upgrade the convention center, but to develop the whole 52-acres that encompasses the district into an economic engine for the city.

 According to the Procurement Office, a future proposal to renovate or expand the convention center needs to include a sorely needed ballroom space, large enough to accommodate current demands in the convention circuit. Over the years the MBCC has lost ground to newer and larger centers. Once in the national top ten in size, it has fallen to the mid 20s.

Additionally a headquarter hotel is also a major component of the master plan, and generally thought of as an important aspect in attracting conventions with a large volume of out-of-town attendees. In the past, the city addressed this problem by giving public funds to help attract surrounding hotels like the Loews, and the Royal Palm.

The vision also calls for restaurants, entertainment, and retail locations to have a place in the district.

Currently the 52-acre district includes City Hall, The Filmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater, the 17th Street Parking Garage, additional surface parking spaces, and the 21st Street Community Center. All have been sanctioned by city for demolition if the selected master plan calls for it, provided the plans finds a place to replace most of them.

The only structure deemed untouchable is the Carl Fisher Club House which enjoys historic status and protection.

The Jackie Gleason Theater can be demolished as long as a new performing center is included in the plans. The same for City Hall, the parking garage, and surface parking spaces. The roads in the district are also fair game; a new street grid is at the discretion of the master planer. The 21st Street Community Center does not have a stipulation of having to be included somewhere else according to the RFQ.

The large scope of this development has Stuart Blumberg, the Chairman of the Miami Beach Convention Center Advisory Board, wondering if the convention center itself is the focus.

“I think the convention center becomes secondary,” Blumberg told the SunPost last week.

Blumeberg is a retired hotelier who spent most of his career trying to advance the local hotel and tourism industry. Until recently he was a founding member and President of the Greater Miami and The Beaches Hotel Association. He has spent a considerable amount of time and energy around the MBCC.

“I’m a little tired of 11 years of frustration,” he said.

Blumberg has called for a special meeting on February 28, at high noon, with the City Manager, Commissioners, the Convention Center Visitors Bureau, the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, and the Hotel Association to finally hash out what are the plans of the city in regards to the MBCC.

“I’m curious,” Blumberg said of the MBCC renovation. “If your not really going to do it, then stop talking about it, stop saying it’s a major issue.”

When this RFQ made it in front of the Commission in January, Commissioner Jerry Libbin made it a point to reiterate the city’s commitment to the convention center.

“The Convention Center is our number one priority,” Libbin said from the dais. “I don’t want any misconceptions- we are pushing for a convention center.”

The comments came after Commissioner Edward Tobin quoted a Wall Street Journal article that said convention centers were becoming obsolete. Tobin then went on to ask that the RFQ not stay within the usual cast of companies that search out government bids, but to be sent out to worldwide developers.

The RFQ is the first phase of the city’s development strategy and only asks interested parties to identify themselves, their team, projected architects, and financial capabilities. It doesn’t specifically ask for a proposal at this moment. The initial list that responds to the RFQ will be whittle down to a short list that will then be presented to the Commission, when additions and subtractions can be made.

City Manager Jorge Gonzalez would like the proposal to draw in financial support from the private sector to help offset contribution from public funds. The last major attempt to renovate the MBCC was considered too expensive. The Gonzalez administration’s future with the city is currently up in the air. In the December meeting, a motion was made to have the manager fired. It was tabled till march.

The MBCC was built in 1957 and has gone through three renovations since it’s construction. The last major renovation to the center ended in 1989 and cost $92 million.

“You can’t go 23 years and still compete for business,” Blumberg said.

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