Tourism City Officials Trying To Salvage Visitors Bureaus Watson Island Project
By Susan Stabley
Tourism and Miami city leaders may look to reroute city-designated tax dollars to salvage the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau’s plans to build a headquarters on Watson Island.
Miami City Commission Chairman Johnny Winton, whose district includes the city-owned island, suggested that the bureau be allowed to tap into millions of unused convention-development tax dollars returned to Miami-Dade County annually by the city.
But one county budget boss said it’s unlikely that the money can be routed to the bureau, as excess funds will be needed to cover outstanding county debts.
The project has been planned since 1997, but the bureau lost a major chunk of its financing – from county tax revenue – when it failed to break ground by Dec. 31 on the $11.6 million headquarters.
"Instead of giving it back, we should keep it for one year and funnel it over when we are done with it," Commissioner Winton said. "It’s absolutely, totally legal. The county just has to agree to it."
The proposed Watson Island Aviation and Visitors Center was to combine bureau headquarters and a press center with seaplane and helicopter bases on the manmade island off the MacArthur Causeway between the mainland and Miami Beach. The deal was struck by the city and the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority.
In February, Miami commissioners approved a 30-year lease agreement with the bureau for the aviation center with two 10-year options, with the sports authority as landlord. The bureau was to pay $23.33 per square foot in rent and split costs of the 1,088-square-foot press center with the city.
The bureau was to be responsible for construction and $7 million in costs, with $3.8 million of that covered by a Miami-Dade County convention development tax grant.
Convention-development tax revenue comes from a 3% tourism and entertainment-driven tax and is used to finance projects countywide and repay outstanding debts. Other facilities aided by the county’s convention-development tax revenue include the Miami Beach Convention Center, the American Airlines Arena and the new Performing Arts Center.
The county sends one-third of convention-development tax money to the city to pay down debt on Miami Arena and to pay for its operations and cover the authority’s budget, though the money never actually goes through the sports authority’s hands, said its director of finance, Ferey Kian. An arm of the city used to promote sports, conventions and exhibitions, the authority was created in 1982 in the wake of legislation establishing the convention-development tax.
But the amount of funding, once "a dinosaur to be harnessed," has instead turned into a "chihuahua," he said.
In 2001, the authority returned to the county $3.5 million in excess funds, he said. As tourism and taxes from visitors plummeted after 9/11, the amount returned last year fell to $1.8 million.
Fewer tax dollars have been collected than projected and bond issues encumber most county tax revenue, said county finance director Rachel Baum.
"Any funds in excess … are already pledged toward payment of a 1997 bond," Ms. Baum said June 29.
Ms. Baum suggested that the bureau pursue a loan from a bank.
Bureau President William Talbert III said Friday that a bank loan might be an option as his organization has "the next 30 days to turn over every rock."
On Sept. 11, the bureau’s executive committee will consider how to cover the missing funds or decide to walk away from the project. Options for the bureau include extending its lease at its offices on Brickell Avenue or looking to Miami Beach for a new home.
Assistant County Manager Tony Crapp said he met July 30 with Mr. Talbert and Al West, who oversees the bureau’s finances.
"It’s still pending a review with the county whether that extension could be granted," Mr. Crapp said of the missed Dec. 31 deadline.
An analysis of convention-development tax revenue projections is ongoing, he said, and if anything can be done to help keep the Watson Island project afloat.
"The bureau has set a deadline to make the decision, and the county is working in concert with that," Mr. Crapp said.
But ultimately, he said, it will be up to the County Commission to decide.