Convention Bureau Moves Toward Watson Island Deal Leaves Miami Beach Leaders Fuming
By Susan Stabley
The relationship between the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau and its largest single funding source – the City of Miami Beach – continues to sour over the agency’s near-certain move to Watson Island.
The bitterness was evident when bureau President and CEO William Talbert III met Feb. 5 with Miami Beach commissioners who were upset about how the bureau is handling its decision where to place its headquarters.
Mr. Talbert, at the request of the bureau executive committee, asked Beach commissioners to pledge a 10-year contract with a pair of five-year renewal options if, in return, the bureau were to move from Brickell Avenue to South Beach.
"The executive committee feels that without a long-term contract from Miami Beach (to lock in the funding partnership) that it did not make any sense to have an office building in Miami Beach," Mr. Talbert said Monday.
Beach commissioners countered that the bureau was already supposed to be seriously considering locations in their city. Indeed, the bureau had told Beach officials months ago that they would evaluate office space on the Beach despite the fact the agency already was in negotiations for the past six years for a visitor center on Watson Island – which is part of the City of Miami.
It was common knowledge that the bureau, City of Miami and Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority, an arm of the city in charge of promoting and underwriting sports and community events, agreed in 1997 to build and operate the Watson Island Regional Aviation & Visitors Center with bureau offices, heliport and seaplane airstrip, plus a press center on more than 5 acres.
What is igniting new sparks between the bureau and Beach was characterized last week by Vice Mayor and Commissioner Simon Cruz when he said the bureau had not been honest about its intentions to also consider the Beach for a home.
"We feel used, and on top of being using, treated with a total lack of respect," said Mr. Cruz, who described himself as the bureau’s strongest supporter on the Beach. "It’s something I will not tolerate."
Commissioner Richard Steinberg said he thought the bureau had been "disingenuous" with Miami Beach, offering "hollow promises."
"When they came in, I gave them the benefit of the doubt, which I now feel somewhat sheepish about," Mr. Steinberg said.
Last year Miami Beach officials asked the bureau – a not-for-profit sales and marketing organization created to attract visitors to all of Miami-Dade County – to make the Beach its home base, instead of Watson Island, as part of a contract renewal between the two.
Late last year, bureau officials vowed that Miami Beach would have an opportunity to evaluate and give input on any decisions about the move. Yet, on Jan. 31, a recommendation was placed before the executive committee of the bureau to select the Watson Island site, though no vote was taken.
In the week leading up to that meeting, several officials in the City of Miami said a Watson Island move was a "done deal."
The Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority has confirmed that an agreement is heading to that city’s commission soon. Under the Watson Island deal, the authority would act as landlord for the bureau on Watson Island.
And Monday, Mr. Talbert said the Watson Island lease has been agreed upon: for 30 years with the option for two 10-year renewals.
"The City of Miami was very aggressive in putting together an agreement for Watson Island. Very aggressive," Mr. Talbert said. "It’s a community that really wants us there as a partner."
Some 32% of the bureau’s income comes from Miami Beach, though its offices are now in the City of Miami. Revenues from Miami Beach comprise $5.7 million of the bureau’s $17.8 million annual budget, according to Beach officials.
But Mr. Talbert said that amount is more like $4.67 million after the bureau sends money in return to the Beach. The City of Miami kicks in about $3.3 million and Bal Harbour about $200,000. The balance is from Miami-Dade County, about $5 million to $6 million, he said.
The bureau also collects dues from its 1,100 members, primarily hotels, restaurants and other businesses involved in the visitor industry.
Mr. Talbert said The Lincoln building at 1685 Michigan Ave. – developed by Scott Robins and R. Donahue Peebles on city property with a 50-year lease there – was presented to the bureau by a hired real estate consulting firm as the Beach’s best location, but that Watson Island was the better opportunity, especially since there was no guarantee Miami Beach would agree to a long-term funding contract to guarantee its partnership with the bureau.
"The executive committee would consider a Beach office a viable alternative if, and only if, there is a long-term contract with Miami Beach," Mr. Talbert said. "They wanted to see something on the table, an agreement from Miami Beach… something in writing… something concrete. We’re worried about getting stuck."
Remaining as an option, Mr. Talbert said, is a satellite office for the bureau at Miami Beach’s 10th Street Auditorium.
But disagreements surrounding this search for a headquarters may put partnerships between the bureau and Miami Beach into question.
In the past, Mayor David Dermer has contended that Beach money 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.
Now, Mr. Dermer is emphasizing that he has been long pushing for reforms and accountability with the bureau, with which it has worked for 19 years. "Initially, I felt like I walked into a room of chain smoker and asked them to stop and start chewing gum."
It appears many of his fellow elected officials may now be agreeing with him, with even Mr. Cruz skeptical of the bureau’s intentions.
"I believe strongly in the mission of the bureau. I believe in regionalism, that working together is the most effective way to promote the county," said Mr. Cruz. "But I have some serious doubts about the sincerity of the leadership, the administration, to be an equal partner."
A two-year contract between the bureau and the Beach comes up for negotiations in the middle of this year. The bureau has been asking for a 10-year deal or longer, which officials say is highly unlikely.
"Right now, the bureau’s been told ‘Good Luck, God Speed, we wish you well’," said Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez. "We hope you make the right choice."
But both Mr. Talbert and the bureau’s board chairman, Tony Goldman, said it would be a terrible blow to the area if Miami Beach ever severed its ties with their organization.
"It would turn the clock back 20 years. We would not have a unified message and it would dilute the overall sales effort," said Mr. Talbert, referring to when there were multiple agencies stepping over each other to promote the area. "It turns the clock back to when the destination gave mixed messages confusing the customer."
"It would bring us back to the point where each little community was scraping for crumbs and fighting with each other," said Mr. Goldman, also a South Beach hotelier.
Mr. Goldman agreed that South Beach is the most prominent of the destinations that the bureau markets, but that it should not go at it alone and become "a little outpost." He also said that, as both a bureau leader and Miami Beach businessman, he personally saw to it that the process of a new headquarters was handled openly, honestly and fairly.
"We spent a lot of time and energy on this," he said. "We wanted to make sure we were thorough."
A consultant was hired for an analysis of all options of sites on Miami Beach and a short list of the six best was then winnowed down to one.
But no deal would even be considered if Miami Beach was unwilling to agree to a long-term funding agreement of 10-plus years, Mr. Goldman said.
"Everybody knows what my home neighborhood is, where I grew up and my love for this community," he said. "But I have the responsibility to sit at the head of a family table. It’s important to remember it’s a family table and that family is Greater Miami."
The Watson Island site, he said, is better for the region.
"I think it will take the destination light years forward from today," he said. "This is thousands of hours worth of work as a partnership with the State of Florida, the county and the City of Miami. It’s a project that has really been brilliant in its concept."
But, even considering Watson Island the better deal, Mr. Goldman said he’d vote for a location on South Beach if Miami Beach agreed to a long-term contract that was married to a lease agreement for a site and "if we could put to bed this parochial back-biting political nonsense."
"It would have my strong vote, because the family staying together would be more important," he said.
But time seems to be running out. In the same interview, Mr. Goldman said an agreement for the bureau to lease the Watson Island site could be final within 30 days.
The vote on a lease for the bureau’s Watson Island site would return to the executive committee within a week, according to Mr. Talbert, and then go to Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority and the Miami City Commission.