Convention hotel debacle: when will the leaders check in?
Written by Michael Lewis on March 22, 2016
As Miami Beach gropes for straws to rescue its dream of an 800-room convention hotel, over in Miami an exhibition center hotel with exhibit and meeting space has unveiled a new design as two hotels totaling 1,700 rooms.
Though Miami Beach had the advantage of $615 million to upgrade its aged convention center that had a large roster of consumer and trade show bookings, the city is now looking over its shoulder as Miami makes more progress.
It shouldn’t be a case of winner or loser. Both communities could develop meeting business that suits their advantages, needs and aims so that it’s entirely a win-win for all of Miami-Dade County, which can use the industry’s jobs.
But over the years, Miami Beach has been torn. Residents dislike traffic and crowding that visitors bring – but the industry also funnels about $90 million in bed taxes to city hall.
After years of failures, the Miami Beach Convention Center is now being upgraded, But to do the job, the city had to split off plans for a convention center hotel, 800 rooms that many in the industry say are vital to support the parallel plan by Mayor Philip Levine to shift the center from its long-time base of traffic-generating consumer and trade shows to hotel-filling business and industry meetings.
That plan toppled last week, however, when voters rejected a site lease to an Atlanta firm to build the hotel adjacent to the convention center. Though 53% of voters who went to the polls favored the plan, 60% was needed.
That left city commissioners meeting the next day puzzling over what happened and where to head next.
Was it the hotel’s size that voters rejected, they asked, or its height, or the lease deal, or “the secretive efforts by the opponents” that the mayor blasted in a letter, or robo calls and flyers financed by who knows who that Commissioner Michael Grieco said “are pretty gross to see,” or some hidden cabal of unnamed big-money mainland interests, maybe even out of state, that Mr. Grieco said have a competitive interest now or contemplate one?
Or was it a lousy job of turning out the vote? The 15,811 voters were fewer than 39% of all 40,576 registered in Miami Beach. Sure, the 7,319 who said no to the hotel were just 18% of city voters, but the 8,492 who said yes were just 21% – hardly a groundswell of support.
Maybe so few voted for a convention hotel because it’s hardly a make-or-break issue for the city’s success, despite the way proponents painted it beforehand.
Stuart Blumberg, retired head of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, points out that booming Miami Beach hotels won’t allocate big blocks of rooms that large conventions would need at lower rates even if a convention hotel was anchoring major meetings – the kind that need 6,500 to 9,000 room nights.
So the mayor’s vision of ousting consumer shows in favor of shows that will require large numbers of hotel rooms centered on a main convention hotel might need revisiting – soon.
We’re about to find out. The mayor and commissioners made clear last week that they have no idea whether the sole bidder on a convention hotel this time around – Atlanta’s Jack Portman, who was also involved in the last failed attempt – will make third try.
“I wish we had five bidders, four bidders, three bidders, two bidders – no one wants it,” Mayor Levine told the commission.
Nor, commissioners said, are they sure that anyone else but Mr. Portman would bid on a deal that isn’t subsidized by the city when across the nation communities subsidize convention hotels, including a potential $115 million subsidy for Miami’s forthcoming exposition center hotel complex.
After debate, commissioners threw all their uncertainties into the lap of City Manager Jimmy Morales with the unenviable task of coming back in April with a plan for a convention hotel either on the same site or another plot of city land, either subsidized or unsubsidized, either the same number of hotel rooms or fewer, either the same height or shorter, either with the planned public park or without, either by renegotiating the same deal with Mr. Portman or going back to a new request for proposals or by negotiating with some third party – but definitely on the November ballot after the commission by September approves whatever the deal is.
It’s the classic case of a headlong rush by government to go somewhere with absolutely no roadmap or planned destination.
After a unanimous vote to let the manager sort out the whole mess came a shout from the dais, “Mr. Manager, you’ve got your work cut out for you” – buck-passing on a grand scale.
It would be a marvel if the highly reputable Portman firm actually tried a third time. The process has already cost the company millions. With the city groping for a path – any path, it seems, will do – most businesses would pack it in.
Meanwhile, Miami Beach has lost its long-standing Miami International Boat Show to a much more suitable location on Virginia Key in Miami, its Sea Trade meeting to Broward County, and other events to who knows where while the convention center is rebuilt. Getting them back will be harder than retaining them was.
Our industry sales arm, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, has done well over the years with the 20% of so of its business that is meetings and conventions. On Miami Beach it has battled an inadequate facility that soon will be far better able to compete for second- and third-tier events. A convention hotel would help.
But the bureau in many ways might find an easier sell across the bay at Miami Worldcenter, with 1,100 dedicated hotel rooms from the outset and a supply of downtown hotels that should be more than willing to reserve large numbers of rooms for key meetings.
Downtown Miami, Mr. Blumberg points out, has far better access to sports, museums, performances, shopping, airport transportation and parking. So meetings that need to be attached to a headquarters hotel will find a ready and willing home with 1,100 rooms that won’t need 60% of voters to open the door with a “Welcome” sign.
To this point Miami Beach doesn’t have its act together. Telling the city manager to be a one-man rescue squad is asking far too much.
A grassroots effort can’t steer this difficult process, either.
Leadership needs to come from a united visitor industry plus a unified city government. It starts with a firm vision of what’s wanted and what’s possible. That’s not the manager’s role.
When will the leaders check in?