RIVAL BIDDERS FOR MIAMI BEACH CONVENTION CENTER REDEVELOPMENT HAVE LINED UP SUPPORTERS.
When members of the Miami Beach City Commission meet in July to select from between the two remaining bidders for the Miami Beach Convention Center redevelopment project, they will have plenty of opinions and recommendations to reference. They will have recommendations from two ranking committees, from the city administration, from analysis provided by experts, and in some commission members’ cases, from the advocacy of longtime friends and campaign supporters.
Both teams – Portman-CMC and South Beach ACE – frequently cite their respective lists and letters of prominent supporters of their visions.
This week, the latest development in terms of prominent supporters is the strong preference for the Portman-CMC proposal expressed by State Senator Gwen Margolis. In a letter dated June 24 and addressed to Commissioner Deede Weithorn, Margolis wrote, “I am now unequivocally supporting the Portman-CMC project as the proposal that will move Miami Beach into the next century.”
Margolis went on to explicitly describe her rationale. “The Portman-CMC project provides the best return for the more than $600 million that will be spent on the convention center property,” she wrote. “The Portman-CMC project will cost the public significantly less, as total public costs for the Portman-CMC project are estimated at $624.4 million as opposed to $700 million for South Beach ACE, a savings to the residents of Miami Beach of more than $75 million. As a member and former Chairperson of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I know how important it is that any expenditure of public money should provide great return for the municipality or state providing these funds.”
Margolis also cited those aspects of the proposed Portman-CMC project routinely mentioned by those who prefer the bidder’s vision – the considerably shorter timeline for completion (Margolis cites Portman’s schedule as being a year and half shorter than South Beach ACE’s), some $9 million in lower design fees than South Beach ACE, three times the contribution provided by Portman-CMC in private dollars to the public for open space and Portman-CMC’s considerably greater contribution to the arts and cultural programming, in addition to the obvious financial advantages.
But Margolis is just the latest, and arguably the highest-profile figure to wade into the debate. Portman-CMS has also received support from Stephen Cushman of Cush Enterprises, former chairman of the board of commissioners, Port of San Diego; from Reed Exhibitions, the largest owner/producer of trade shows in the world; The Freeman Company, the largest trade show builder in the U.S.; and local arts, culture and community leaders such as Barton S. Goldberg, Judy Drucker, Liliam Lopez, Harvey Burstein and respected local architect Ira Giller.
South Beach ACE has won the support of the Miami International Boat Show organizers, Morgan Stanley, American Farm Bureau Federation and local entities such as Fryd Properties, Lincoln Center Associates, The Sterling Building, Gombinski Properties and architect Arthur Marcus.
Many of the letters of support reviewed by SunPost reflect common sentiments in regard to the two competing bidders. That is, Portman-CMC offers a less expensive to the public proposal, with lower fees, safer public investment and considerably quicker development project. South Beach ACE has countered, claiming that Portman-CMC adopted some of the aspects initially proposed by South Beach ACE.
However, advantages in design and concept also put in appearances in the bidders’ letters of support. In a letter from Reed Exhibitions Senior Vice President Ken McAvoy to the city commission, McAvoy cites the superior exhibition hall and design and location of the ballroom, vertical pedestrian flow and loading pathways as key reasons the largest producer of trade events in the world supports the Portman-CMC plan. It’s clear McAvoy offers a perspective from end-users of the revitalized Center as he wrote, “The introduction of catwalks in the exhibition area is another key issue to lower overall cost to exhibit and allow Miami to attract more business.” Reed Exhibitions produces 500 events in 39 countries and has had representatives serve on the client advisory boards of the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York, the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, the Boston Convention Center, Chicago’s McCormick Place and the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Writing on behalf of the Miami International Boat Show, Cathy Rick-Joule, vice president of Southern Shows, cited flexibility with the South Beach ACE team’s proposed ballrooms, exhibit halls and breakout spaces, the integration of the hotel with the convention center, pedestrian traffic flow in the direction of Lincoln Road and other aesthetic aspects of the vision.
Public Policy Or Politics?
Of course, politics might well play more of a role in the eventual decision by the city commission and controversy has surrounded numerous aspects of the long bidding and planning process for the billion-dollar development deal in the heart of Miami Beach.
Already the process has been the elephant in the room as scandal erupted in city hall, leading to the arrest of the former procurement director and which also contributed to the commission removing former City Manager Jorge Gonzalez. While an investigation found no evidence that the process was tainted, many still have questions.
Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson is pushing for a public vote on the entire project, as opposed to a vote only on a handful of parking spaces as required by the City Charter.
More recently, some have openly questioned the role of attorney Victor Diaz in the South Beach ACE development team. Having initially claimed to be a principal in the deal, Diaz – a longtime friend and supporter of Mayor Matti Bower and a former commissioner – also registered as a lobbyist for the South Beach ACE team. Diaz did not respond to a request to discuss the community center topic, nor has Bower responded to questions including whether or not she has been lobbied by her friend and former commission colleague.
Controversy has also circulated around the recommendation process. Last week, someone purporting to represent the Palm View Historic District Association issued an endorsement for the South Beach ACE proposal. The problem is that there is no official Association and activist community members tell SunPost that they were not involved in the discussion about endorsing one development team or the other.
Even the city’s own entities reviewing the two proposals haven’t been immune to controversy and politicking. Already brushed aside are the recommendations of the City’s own convention center management group who saw their report shot down at a city commission meeting after Global Spectrum’s analysis favored Portman-CMC. Bower stormed out of commission chambers, shut down the discussion and the report has apparently not been made available in writing to residents.
“This was the low point of the entire process,” community activist Frank Del Vecchio, who attended the meeting in question, told SunPost.
This week, the Miami Beach Planning Board was drawn into the fray. Some members and others in the community were surprised when a memo from board chair Charles Urstadt containing a detailed analysis of the two proposals and an endorsement for the South Beach ACE plan began circulating last week.
However, Urstadt’s memo was one of five submitted by Planning Board members that will be incorporated into the package of analyses to be presented to the city commission, Urstadt told SunPost. “My memo got out,” he said.
“The Planning Department incorporated all of our memos and did a summary,” Urstadt added.
Urstadt said that Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting was productive in that the four present members were able to hone their analysis. In a vote of 2-2, Urstadt said the board deadlocked on whether to include an overall recommendation on the rival development groups.
A memo from the Planning Department to board members in preparation for the meeting, called on members to provide analysis based on extensive cited criteria – with no request for a recommendation.
“Verbally, they did ask us for a recommendation,” Urstadt said.
However, unlike many convention industry leaders and local special interests, no official endorsement from the Planning Board is now anticipated.