Two cities continue to vie for Greater Miami's convention bureau headquarters
By Susan Stabley
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau is leaning eastward - but how far east depends on whether you ask the City of Miami or Miami Beach.
One City of Miami staffer and the financial director of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, who will operate and manage Watson Island - the manmade hunk of land in Biscayne Bay between Miami and the seaport - both said this week that the bureau seems headed to the island after all, despite delays and the possibility of the center defecting to Miami Beach.
But Miami Beach officials - namely Mayor David Dermer and Commissioner Luis Garcia, who also sits on the bureau's board - say they are awaiting word from the bureau about five properties the group is considering in their city - on the east side of Biscayne Bay.
Calls this week to Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO William Talbert, Chairman Tony Goldman and Alvin West, who heads up finances, were not returned.
In 1997, the City of Miami, the bureau and the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority, an arm of the city in charge of promoting and underwriting sports and community events, agreed to build and operate the visitors' center. It would be the Watson Island Regional Aviation & Visitors Center with bureau offices, heliport and seaplane airstrip, plus a press center on more than 5 acres.
The island is now bustling with construction of the new Parrot Jungle and Gardens, the Miami Children's Museum and, if a lease gets inked, a mega-yacht marina with hotels and retail by developer Flagstone Properties.
But then Miami Beach officials asked the bureau - a private, not-for-profit sales and marketing organization created to attract visitors to all of Miami-Dade County, including the beaches - to consider moving the headquarters across the bay.
The bureau it would consider the Beach. And, according to Beach Commissioner Garcia, there is an agreement that before the bureau makes a decision, his city would have an opportunity to evaluate it and give input.
Yet a meeting last week between City of Miami officials and the bureau was "very upbeat," said Frank Balzebre, the chief of staff to Commissioner Johnny Winton. A deal should be made soon, Mr. Balzebre said.
"There have been some outstanding issues, but both sides were positive. Both wanted to make it happen," he said. "For a deal that was going sour, it was turned around quickly."
Mr. Balzebre said the stumbling blocks between the bureau and Miami were about "20 items lease-related." Lawyers are moving forward, he said, to draft language for the adoption of a lease that should lead to a groundbreaking in late December.
Ferey Kian, the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority's director of finance, was also commenting on the bureau move to Watson Island like a decision that was already made, save for details to be decided.
The lease agreement needs to be passed by the authority before it goes before the City of Miami, Mr. Kian said.
While they hoped to do that in early December, that meeting has been pushed back to mid-December so they can review and possibly approved other projects set for Watson Island. Two agreements have to be ironed out - the leasing and the interlocal, he said. A decision should be made soon on which firm will handled the aviation end of the center.
So, then, is the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau going to Watson Island?
"That is for sure," said Mr. Kian.
The bureau is currently at 701 Brickell Ave. in Miami. Watson Island is also within Miami. But much of the bureau's income comes from Miami Beach. Revenues from the Beach comprise $5.7 million of the $17.8 million annual budget.
In the past, Mayor Dermer has said that the Beach's share could be used to hire a firm to sell only Miami Beach's attributes, rather than having the city sold as a destination with rest of Miami-Dade County.
Mayor Dermer said Tuesday that while the Beach recently renewed the Bureau's contract for two more years, it has also hired a consultant "to determine what is best for Miami Beach."
He also said he wasn't aware that any decision had been made on where the bureau would settle and was still awaiting the results of the study of the Miami Beach properties versus Watson Island.
If the bureau pulls out of the Watson Island scenario, Miami staff has said the city may not be able to build the structure on its own. And if the project isn't started by year's end, the bureau will lose some funds earmarked for the $11 million Watson Island Regional Aviation & Visitors Center. Nearly $4 million is to come from Miami-Dade convention development taxes, but that is contingent on construction beginning before Dec. 31.
Commissioner Garcia concedes a decision must be made soon but he is still fighting for the Beach's chance.
"Right now is a good time for the bureau to move into our city," he said. "We give the lions share of taxes and our office space is very abundant."
But, he adds, "The window is getting ready to close."