Miami Beach scrambles to keep convention center development on track
By Scott Blake
With longtime Miami Beach Procurement Director Gus Lopez suddenly out of a job, dogged by what are still vague allegations of professional misconduct, officials are hoping to keep on track one of the city's largest public-private development projects in many years.
Mr. Lopez had been overseeing the city's solicitations to select a private team of partners to redevelop the famed Miami Beach Convention Center and its surroundings in an effort to upgrade Miami Beach's convention and tradeshow business and reinvigorate that section of the city.
The process was thrown into controversy when Mr. Lopez resigned Friday, reportedly under the threat of being fired.
City Manager Jorge Gonzalez reportedly said city officials had been monitoring Mr. Lopez's emails and found "inappropriate" correspondence about the convention center. The Miami Beach Police Department is investigating the case to determine whether Mr. Lopez should be charged with a legal violation.
City spokeswoman Nannette Rodriguez said the city will not release the emails in question because they are part of the investigation.
Meanwhile, the city has pushed back the deadline for a second time for development teams interested in the convention center project to submit their qualifications. The original deadline was March 23, but the city rescheduled it to March 29 shortly before Mr. Lopez resigned. The new deadline is April 23.
Patricia Walker, the city's chief financial officer, and Raul Aguila, a deputy city attorney, are helping to oversee the project's procurement process in Mr. Lopez's stead, said Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez.
Mr. Lopez's resignation was prompted by "performance issues, including issues of insubordination," Ms. Fernandez said.
"In the process of reviewing those issues, we came to discover certain correspondence [by Mr. Lopez] regarding a competitive process," Ms. Fernandez said. "We forward it to the proper authorities for their review and for whatever action they deem appropriate."
She said the city's police department "has initiated an investigation" of the matter. She added that the city plans to resume with the convention center project, which she called "important for the city, as well as the region."
City Commissioner Jerry Libbin said, as he understands it, the city is investigating whether Mr. Lopez leaked information in advance that may have given a particular developer an advantage in the process.
If that turns out to be true, Mr. Libbin said, he would favor eliminating that developer from the selection process.
"I want to see what the evidence is," Mr. Libbin said.
He said the project would move forward unimpeded.
"I don't think [the controversy] will throw a wrench into it," he said, adding that a short delay should not harm a project that already has taken years to get started.
Mr. Gonzalez did not return telephone calls to discuss the matter. Mr. Lopez could not be reached.
Meanwhile, the city has received four proposals from developers competing for a separate project to develop lots along Lincoln Road, Ms. Fernandez said.
As it stands now, the developer selection process for the convention center project will be delayed at least a month or two. City officials had been planning to narrow the field of candidates to a short list by early May, but now the city commission would not take that action until its meetings in June or July, barring any more delays, Mr. Libbin said.
Mr. Libbin said he was told that, before the deadline for qualifications was reset to April 23, the city received a submission from one development team, but the package was not opened and it was returned.
Mr. Libbin said the controversy surrounding Mr. Lopez's departure should not discourage developers from vying for the project because the city is investigating the matter and will carry out the selection process fairly.
Ultimately, he added, developers will compete for the project based on whether they see it as a financially feasible and profitable venture.
In an effort to make it more financially feasible, city advisors have proposed increasing the city's hotel bed tax by one percentage point to raise an estimated $80 million to $90 million for the project over a 10-year period. The goal is to have local voters approve the tax increase on the city's August ballot.
Miami Beach commissioners referred the tax proposal to the city's Finance Committee, but commissioners expect to act on it in coming months.
Mayor Matti Herrera Bower said she supports placing the proposed tax increase on the August ballot, noting the high level of support for it among local businesses, especially those in the tourism and hospitality industries.
In addition, the city has about $50 million or more available to help fund the project, although Mr. Gonzalez has said the city wants to keep its financial contribution to the project to a minimum.
Meanwhile, the mayor said the city should follow through on its investigation related to Mr. Lopez.
"If this gentleman did something illegal, he should be punished for it. If not, that's fine," she added. "I want to keep Miami Beach as clean as possible."
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