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Front Page » Opinion » Convention hotel debacle: when will the leaders check in?

Convention hotel debacle: when will the leaders check in?

Written by on March 22, 2016
Convention hotel debacle: when will the leaders check in?

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?

7 Responses to Convention hotel debacle: when will the leaders check in?

  1. anon

    March 23, 2016 at 8:30 am

    My spouse and I both voted against the convention center because of traffic. Until the beach builds a train to downtown, widens sidewalks, creates dedicated bike lanes, closes ocean drive to automobiles, there is simply no space for all these extra conventioneers. I actually liked the prior design rejected by Levine as opposed to the current high rise hotel design, but that had nothing to do with the vote. It came down to I want to see the train under construction before the city moves ahead with this hotel.

    • DC Copeland

      March 23, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Not any train will solve the problem. An at-grade light rail (Miami Beach’s preference) will only contribute to traffic congestion, especially when it breaks down on the narrow streets in SoBe. Since a subway is out of the question for many reasons, the only alternative is to put the train above grade, like MetroRail and to connect it to downtown Miami’s new Grand Central Station now under construction. An early solution suggested a Disney-style monorail but that appears to have been rejected because of aesthetics (it’s north-south run ran along Ocean Drive on beach sand).

  2. Jo Manning

    March 23, 2016 at 10:53 am

    Always makes me shake my head in disbelief when I see anonymous postings. These were all over the Miami Herald comments pages whenever they had an article on this land-lease vote. Many of these folks then castigated those of us who dared to put our names out there, along with our opinions. It was a nasty campaign, made nastier by the NO mailers and robo-calls from unnamed (again!) entities that were full of mis- and disinformation and played on the traffic, lack of faith in Mayor Levine, and assorted other fears of voters. (At one point, the undistinguished Henry Hohauser building that would have had to have been demolished was also trotted out.)

    To date, these NO mailer folks have not filed with the state of Florida (I believe that the deadline was March 11th?) and identified themselves. Something very wrong here.

    By the way, it will take years and years for any “train” to be approved for Miami Beach. Nor is widening sidewalks an answer to anything. (Reminds me of the woman I spoke with after a community meeting who said that the answer to all our woes was “more roads”…but that’s the level of understanding I have come to expect from the average Miami Beach voter.)

    I could go on, but the point — the only point — is that voters were deceived by some very slick marketers and those with personal political agendas. This Portman plan was a gift, one that would have — excuse the cliche — kept on giving to Miami Beach taxpayers.

    Miami Beach — even with the gorgeous new convention center underway — will be unable to compete in any meaningful way — will not be a serious player — with the many world-class convention facilities out there. It is a competitive field! And it usually includes dedicated on-site hotels that cater to conventioneers and offer those all-important blocks of rooms to conventions — something no hotel on Miami Beach currently offers). RIP to the city’s dreams of such a convention center hotel that, together with the new convention facility, would have brought a higher level of visitor to Miami Beach.

    In the meanwhile, do enjoy the antics of spring breakers and urban beach weekers who litter our beautiful beaches and cost the taxpayers a bundle in terms of extra policing and sanitation pickups. Wow! These groups of visitors do so much for Miami Beach, do they not? Time for some common sense, free of political manipulation, folks.

  3. DC Copeland

    March 23, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    If Jimmy is looking for a solution, may I suggest the city consider building the hotel on TOP of the convention center; maybe only two floors with an open “park” between the perimeter rooms that is covered with an atrium, much like the newer cruise ships (which the convention center is as long). The original hotel site can then be turned into a park with hotel’s park-like atrium spilling into the park (the hotel’s lobby becomes an extension of the public park with a forest of royal palms inside and outside the glass atrium). Still, without an elevated mass transit station that connects to the elevated tracks in downtown Miami’s new Grand Central Station, the project will only lower the quality of life for anyone living on the beach.

  4. Rick Kendle

    March 27, 2016 at 12:56 am

    Traffic. Which streets will the hundreds of new Conv Ctr hotel employees use to go to work? Will they be dropped off because there isn’t enough hotel employee parking? If so, will their spouses drive elsewhere on our streets, making even more traffic jams?
    Every resident that drives in Miami Beach experiences horrible traffic. Want proof? Just save your Google Maps traffic screen. Red everywhere for backed up streets. Better than a traffic study done in April a few years ago for 3 days! Real facts. Real information.
    I am not aware of much about the Conv Ctr Hotel, but I know that I’m stuck in traffic every single day. Misinformation from the city and hotel backers about how this hotel will “make traffic better” doesn’t ring true when there is no hotel, no conventions, and it takes me an hour to drive to South Beach from North Beach.
    I’m voting No at every vote on this until we really fix traffic, & not by approving a $60M/mile light rail that Is outrageously expensive & which we can’t afford.

    • DC Copeland

      March 28, 2016 at 10:36 am

      Rick, you hit it on the head. Traffic is the problem. Light rail is not the answer. Anything at grade, i.e., takes up a traffic lane, becomes part of the problem. The world’s most populous cities go under or above ground to solve their mass trans problems. Digging a subway won’t work here unless you have billions to throw at it. The other route was chosen by Miami-Dade county when it built MetroRail. Can anyone imagine what US1 would be like today if they had chosen light rail? A traffic nightmare. Over eight years ago when Baylink became an idea, one solution was to build a Disney-style monorail from downtown Miami to the convention center. Much of it hung on the channel side at grade of the MacArthur Causeway. This shaved off millions of dollars in construction costs. The north/south route ran on beach sand before turning west into the convention center. This approach again shaved off millions of dollars in construction costs because digging up the streets to protect buried infrastructure wasn’t necessary. That idea went no where because those in charge at that time didn’t want any part of it built on the beach. At that time the cost was estimated at $10 million a mile. You can check it out yourself here: