City Manager Needs To Weigh In On Convention Center Battle
By Michael Lewis
We’ve needed a modern convention center for so long that we’d like to overlook the process we’re suffering to get one, as though the vital end justified the very ugly means.
But how can anything justify what’s been going on as Miami Beach prepares to pick a development team?
You could think of the juggling and whip-cracking and roaring as a three-ring circus. Some in the cast certainly could be wearing clown costumes.
An equally apt parallel might be a pro wrestling match with a good guy and a bad guy in the ring. You take one look and know who’s who ñ and you know the good guy is supposed to win.
In this case, it’s a bit different. Both teams seeking to redevelop what started out as 52 acres in the heart of Miami Beach entered the ring as good guys ñ fine architects, experienced business folks, big names on each side, and both teams geared to do something extraordinary.
As the battle went on, however, both participants morphed into bad guys. You end up hoping each is going to lose.
They did it with the culpability of mudslinging publicists intent on muddying the other side and manipulating public opinion through the press to help them make a messy case.
They did it with the culpability of political fixers of the type that Miami Beach has long known and a cadre of well-known figures lined up for one side or the other.
They did it with the culpability of principals who screamed foul as the other side seemed to be getting a toehold.
They did it with implication of lawsuits if the other side won on a technicality. When a contract hinges on both sides agreeing not to sue if they lose, as this one has, we know we’re in deep trouble.
City officials haven’t helped.
One commissioner never wanted any decision and tried to twist the argument into whether the bidders had become unregistered lobbyists in fighting for their causes.
The manager first sent both bidders back to the drawing boards to scale down the project ñ perhaps a good decision ñ and then didn’t give commissioners a long written assessment of the deal until the pre-dawn hours the day of last week’s vote to proceed.
Worst of all, City Manager Jimmy Morales took the easy way out and declined to recommend either choice for this week’s planned selection vote, saying no bidder could complain about that.
Of course no bidder can complain if the manager doesn’t analyze what he has seen and try to give vital guidance to the voting officials who have only his analysis to go on ñ that and, of course, all the name-calling and backbiting that typifies pro wrestling.
So in the end, with little guidance, the winner of the fight will be the tag team that manages to assemble the most political clout. That’s the way many political decisions are made, but it’s not the way to choose a developer for an iconic center that not only will determine the future of much of Miami Beach for decades but will be the lure for our economy-boosting conventions and meetings.
Several commissioners tried to delay a selection. One of them doesn’t want a choice at all, but a delay is clearly what circumstances have called for ñ circumstances of the making of the bidders, the commission and city management, but circumstances nonetheless.
Of course, there is a real need to hurry along a revitalized convention center. We lose vital business every day we don’t have one. This newspaper has long supported the improvement and continues to do so. It’s the right thing ñ but being done exactly the wrong way.
If there were a solution at this very late stage, it would be for the manager to show backbone and recommend one team or the other. He’s in the best position to do so: presumably neutral and certainly the best informed on the deal.
Don’t forget, Mr. Morales ran for county mayor, asking to make major decisions for the entire county at a time that Miami-Dade still had a professional manager to do the administrative stuff. So Mr. Morales, a Harvard-educated lawyer who grew up on Miami Beach, should be able to decide which deal is better ñ or at least less bad.
Instead, Mr. Morales ñ the referee in this wrestling match ñ is abdicating, leaving the victory to whoever got better press, more endorsements and more local political heavyweights on his side.
Either team is, of course, perfectly capable of building a fine convention center, just as the Miami Marlins were able to build a fine baseball stadium with $3 billion in public money.
The question, however, is not construction quality but what deal the public gets. That’s the manager’s role to shape and recommend, the commission’s role to choose wisely ñ and that’s what’s not happening.
Users of whatever convention center comes out of this bad wrestling match will probably be satisfied, no matter how good the final deal is or isn’t ñ just as the few people who go to Marlins Park are probably satisfied with the facilities.