Now choices in Beach’s convention hotel quest get harder
Written by Michael Lewis on April 12, 2016
This week’s decision on how to get a companion hotel to serve a revamped Miami Beach Convention Center may be the easiest of up to 10 choices needed to make the city’s $615 million investment in the center pay off.
Last month commissioners told City Manager Jimmy Morales to sort a list of choices and map a path to get a hotel. In response, he laid out the only roadmap that can get residents to vote on a hotel this fall.
His recommendation: move ahead, survey voters for $100,000 about what tweaks might get them to okay a hotel they rejected last month, meet with both sides for feedback, renegotiate a plan with the only developer who’s interested, and by Aug. 9 get the issue on the November ballot.
In reaching that conclusion, Mr. Morales showed why he doesn’t think a city subsidy can pass although every US convention hotel got one, why the chosen site is the only one today, and why the city won’t develop its own hotel. The key is timing: only his course is rapid enough.
The commission would be wise to follow his concise, thoughtful plan. Still, it might not work. Success will rest on how some of nine other questions are answered:
1. Will size stay at 800 rooms? Scaling back could be too small to lure meetings that need hotel rooms in a convention complex.
2. Will Atlanta-based Portman, the only developer that met criteria for the hotel, return after spending millions twice already to win work in the complex? The city and developers are silent on that. Tweaks to the deal might tilt Portman’s interest in either direction.
3. If Portman does play, how far will the city bend in dealing with a partner that has you over a barrel? If Jack Portman is the only provider for a hotel the city vitally needs and he knows it, he will negotiate from a position of absolute strength and the city might pay a high price.
4. Once voters are polled followed by a pro-con meeting, will the city and visitor industry end up on the same path? Whatever tweaks are made, hotel plans still must meet interests of both elected officials and the industry.
5. Who will lead the drive to pass the measure and with what funds? A 60% vote is needed and the measure got less than 54% in April. Strong, well-funded leaders will be vital.
6. How will those leaders trumpet support and then turn out the vote? Strong opponents and proponents are the easiest to motivate. But 61% of city registered electors didn’t vote at all last month on the issue. Even with a presidential election, this year’s final candidates might not lure many Beach voters to the polls. Getting the missing 61% to vote will be vital.
These questions all assume that the game plan Mr. Morales sketched plays out well. If it doesn’t, three others questions will need answers:
7. What if Jack Portman pulls out or the city can’t reach terms with him? Does the commission try something new in 2017 or beyond? The need for a convention hotel wouldn’t be a bit less because of a failure, but the will to proceed might be.
8. What if Portman stays in the race but voters say no in November? Would commissioners seek a new developer, or offer a 25% to 50% subsidy to lure a developer as Mr. Morales finds all other cities do, or develop the hotel itself, or find a new site, or just give up?
9. If no way is found to get the hotel, would the city reverse course on its aim to seek meetings that need a convention center hotel – meetings that come from afar and spend big? That would mean returning to consumer and trade shows aimed at people in driving distance – shows likely to add auto traffic in the city.
These decisions must be made while the City of Miami is deciding on its $115 million subsidy to an exposition center with 1,700 attached hotel rooms at Miami Worldcenter just north of downtown. This new center, while far smaller than the Beach’s, may be better positioned to lure high-spending out-of-town meetings upon which Miami Beach has set its sights.
There is no reason that Miami and Miami Beach centers cannot succeed simultaneously – no reason other than the decisions both cities make about their involvements.
Miami, inappropriately, is focused on a guarantee of neighborhood jobs rather than overall city gains, though it also may seek a cut of expo center revenues. Nonetheless, the jobs guarantee ultimately will be increased, the subsidy deal will be signed and a long-sought downtown expo center will advance.
Miami Beach faces far more forks in the road to a center hotel than does Miami. But this week there’s only one fork on the table. It’s after Miami Beach say yes right now that the hard decisions begin.