Miami seeks more state funds for construction of Watson Island visitor center
By Susan Stabley
Cost overruns for a planned $11.7 million Watson Island Aviation & Visitors Center are prompting the City of Miami to seek more funds from the Florida Department of Transportation.
Construction is yet to begin on the center, planned as headquarters for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau as well as site of a press center, seaplane terminal and helicopter base on the manmade island between the mainland and Miami Beach, off the MacArthur Causeway.
Costs, once estimated at $6 million, were to be split evenly between the visitors bureau and the state. The price has since risen to $11.7 million, with the bureau to pay 60%.
Bureau Chair Tony Goldman and Laura Billberry, city assistant director for economic development, confirmed the work is expected to exceed the $11.7 million budget but couldn't say by how much. Bureau CEO William Talbert III could not be reached.
The bureau is responsible by contract for all cost overruns. If costs top $11.7 million, the bureau can cancel the deal.
The Florida Department of Transportation set aside $3.2 million for the center in 1992 and $1.5 million more in 2001, said Aymee Ruiz of its regional office. The department hopes to include another $2 million from its 2003-07 budget, she said, if the city matches that amount.
The state funds are tied to the center's aviation uses, but "if the scope of the project changes, then we have the right to revisit our contribution," Ms. Ruiz said.
In February, Miami commissioners approved a 30-year lease with the bureau for the aviation center with two 10-year options. The Miami Sports and Entertainment Authority is landlord. The bureau is to pay $23.33 per square foot rent and split costs of the 1,088-square-foot press center with the city.
The bureau is handling construction and $7 million in cost, with $3.8 million of that covered by a Miami-Dade County convention development tax grant. Convention development revenue comes from a 3% tourism-driven tax used to fund projects countywide.
It's unclear if the bureau met a Dec. 31 groundbreaking deadline to qualify for those funds. Still, with revenues from the convention development tax short of expectations, those funds are already in doubt.
The county is obligated to spend more based on the tax than revenue it's receiving, said Kim Johnson, a county budget analyst. While tourism revenue is returning, she said, the county is below pre-9/11 levels and the bureau may be too far down the pecking order of projects to get funds this year.
"At this point, it doesn't appear that the money is there and there are a number of other obligations that may take priority," she said.
As far as delays in construction, Mr. Goldman said the bureau may consider temporary headquarters on Miami Beach if the project falls too far behind schedule. He also said the bureau might extend its present lease at 701 Brickell Ave., which expires in April.