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$640 million Miami Beach Convention Center Expansion Project to
Become Reality, City Commissioners Give Green Light

By David Smiley, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 28, 2011--The Miami Beach Convention Center expansion project is no longer theoretical. It's a reality.

That's the message City Manager Jorge Gonzalez and key convention center supporters are now delivering to potential investors, and county and state politicians in the wake of a positive vote by five city commissioners.

Commissioners voted 5 -- 0 during the Feb. 24 finance meeting to support a plan to renovate and expand the aging facility from 1 million square feet to 2 million square feet, and construct a 1,000-room convention center hotel. Commissioners Jonah Wolfson and Michael Gongora missed the vote, though Wolfson said before leaving the meeting that he also supported the project.

Five votes would be enough to officially approve the project if it's on the agenda when commissioners meet March 9, or perhaps in April.

Though the committee vote wasn't official commission approval, Gonzalez said it gives him the green light he needs to tell potential investors and politicians that the project has full city support.

"This is a real project," he said.

Part of what convinced commissioners to support the potentially $640 million project was information that their facility has slipped from fourth in size nationally to 27th during the last two decades, is the only major convention center without a headquarter hotel built or at least in the works, and has lost out on major conventions whose organizers enjoyed Miami Beach but said they wouldn't return unless the facility was updated.

In addition, an economic benefit study headed by Washington Economics Group stated that construction of a revamped convention center and hotel would create 12,000 full time jobs, generate $169 million in new taxes, attract 300,000 non-local attendees and generate an additional $100 million in convention-related spending annually.

Now the big questions are whether county commissioners will also approve of the project, whether private investors will line up with proposals, what those designs would look like, and how the potentially $640 million project will be funded.

Aside from support for the expansion and headquarter hotel concept, commissioners also said Thursday that they don't like the expansion design proffered by Arquitectonica, a design firm paid nearly $600,000 to head a year-long planning effort that also included market and cost analyses, among other expertise.

The firm's planners were told to envision a center within the convention center site's current zoning, which has a 100-foot height limit. What the firm came up with was a massive monolith that stretches from the border of Washington Avenue to the edge of Meridian Avenue, and right up against the Holocaust Memorial and Miami Beach Botanical Garden.

Bayshore Homeowners President John Corey called the design "a nightmare." Holocaust Memorial committee members have said the center threatened to make the memorial an afterthought, and some commissioners flatly said the design was unacceptable.

"It was this design," Commissioner Deede Weithorn said of the conceptual image presented to commissioners "that showed us we have a problem."

Officials may now consider a zoning change to allow more stories, or even set up a voter referendum to increase the allowable footprint.

Gonzalez said whatever is proffered, if anything, would be linked to a site plan presented by an investment team.

Gonzalez said right now he plans to talk with investment groups and come up with a fair way to bid out the project, such as a request for proposal. He said the city is looking for something "iconic."

"There is great interest in the private sector," said Gonzalez, who declined Friday to name groups he'd met with.

Robert Wennett, developer of the award-winning 1111 Lincoln Rd., said the city and private investors have a great opportunity.

"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "we're sitting on the most important plot in the U.S. if not the entire world."


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