|By David Smiley, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 19, 2011--As calls grow louder for a plan to finance a proposed overhaul and expansion of the Miami Beach Convention Center, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez continues to quietly meet with developers and hoteliers about private investment into the estimated $650 million project.
Gonzalez met Tuesday with representatives of the Hilton hotel chain to discuss the project -- which would double the size of the convention center to 2 million square feet -- and a proposed 1,000-room convention center hotel on the site of the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater.
"All the big chains are calling and all the big developers are calling," Gonzalez said prior to the meeting, adding that he has also met with Marriott representatives.
Neither company responded to requests for comment.
Gonzalez also said he met Monday with construction representatives and the prior week with design firms interested in applying for a city contract to come up with the "iconic" design commissioners have said they desire. Gonzalez said Miami-based Arquitectonica, which was paid $573,000 to research and analyze the convention market and create a conceptual design for the center within zoning limits -- a design commissioners found unacceptable -- is among the interested firms.
"There is clear interest in this project and in this hotel," Gonzalez said.
As Gonzalez meets with private business in hopes of defraying costs of the project with outside investment, members of the city's Convention Center Advisory Board have called for quick action on a plan for public financing
On May 12, board members convened a special meeting to discuss public funding options in the wake of the failing of two state bills that would have created millions toward financing the convention center overhaul by allowing Miami-Dade County commissioners to increase bed taxes.
Citing numbers from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau that said some $300 million in convention-related business had been lost or is in jeopardy due to inadequate and outdated space and facilities, board members suggested a number of different funding options, including:
-- Increasing Miami Beach's bed tax by one percentage point through a November voter referendum
-- Extending the city's Redevelopment Agency City Center district an additional 30 years
-- Returning to Tallahassee to push for another state bill to allow to allow for the raising of a county bed tax
All these options could be mixed and matched with private investment and would supplement the roughly $55 million already in hand and available to fund renovations. Gonzalez has said the city has reached out to county officials to find possible funding, but he said pursuing discussions with the county has been complicated by the recall of Carlos Alvarez, which has left Miami-Dade without a mayor.
Board members also urged city hall to have a funding plan to present to them by August.
"It's very, very important," said board member Jason Loeb. "Everybody is waiting to get this done."
Loeb, who is also chairman of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, said he plans to meet soon with Tim Nardi, the chairman of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association -- which opposes the construction of a headquarters hotel -- in order to create a plan to support funding for the project.
Both lobbying groups recently supported proposals to allow for an increase of a county bed tax to finance the center renovation.
Stuart Blumberg, chairman of the Convention Center Advisory Board, said Gonzalez's meetings with private business remain important. But he said public funding must also be a priority because developers and hoteliers will want to know how much the city is contributing to the project before committing their own resources.
"It's great that all these hotel companies are interested," he said. "We knew over a year ago there was great interest from the hotel community about a partnership. The questions we raised at our special board meeting the other day still puts on the table: What will be the contribution of public funding other than the $55 million?"
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