|The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune
April 30, 2012--The lack of a modern, up-to-date convention center is one Miami-Dade County's most glaring deficiencies. How could any community that prides itself as being a prime tourist destination fail to build an attractive facility to host national and international gatherings, like the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa this summer?
Public officials should squirm whenever the question arises. Due to the misplaced priorities of county and municipal leaders -- putting the baseball stadium ahead of the convention center -- and frenzied, lobbyist-driven dogfights over public money that should have gone to a convention facility, places like Las Vegas and Tampa are eating our lunch.
Major convention bookers ignore Greater Miami when it's time to pick a meeting site.
Given this sorry history, it's hard to be optimistic about renewed efforts to make this long-needed dream come true. And yet Miami Beach, to its credit, is willing to try again. Like Charlie Brown vowing that this time he's going to send that football soaring over the goal posts, the city's leaders took a major step forward last week to accept qualified bidders for a major project to update the convention center and revitalize the 52-acre site surrounding it.
As dreams go, this is a big one. It calls for 800 on-site hotel rooms, a bigger, renovated convention center with a new ballroom, and potentially condos, office towers, retail shops, parks and other uses.
City Manager Jorge Gonzalez and Mayor Matti Bower told the Editorial Board earlier this month that they foresee a public/private partnership, possibly up to $1 billion in final cost, that could capitalize on Miami Beach's obvious assets -- from SoBe to Lincoln Road to the beach itself -- to bring this project to fruition.
The question is whether the county's leaders and the voters have the will to do it. Making it happen will require buy-ins from both, particularly Miami Beach voters and County Hall.
Countywide, hotel guests pay a combined 13 percent sales and hotel tax on rooms. If Beach voters approve a referendum in August, tourists would pay 14 percent in Miami Beach. The city could leverage the additional penny tax into $90 million to use as collateral (along with $55 million from a countywide bond issue) to lure developers to invest in the ambitious redevelopment plan for the convention district. Later on, voters might have to give their approval to the leasing of public land and possible zoning exceptions for height restrictions on buildings.
County leaders should get behind the plan. A modern conference center in downtown Miami would be an attractive, complementary project. We need that, too, and Miami's Downtown Development Authority has done a good job of helping create the environment for big conferences.
There is no other comparable site in South Florida for a convention facility that can boast of having more than 15,000 hotel rooms within a two-mile radius. Developers seem to know that. Eight bidders responded to the opening call. The next step is to vet the bids and produce a short list later on. City Manager Gonzalez said it may be early next year before a winner is chosen.
Given the competition for public money and a local history of political disarray, it's impossible to predict the future of this project. But certainly the need is there. County officials need to seize the moment.
A modern convention facility is not too much to hope for. It's not just a dream. It's vital for Greater Miami's future.
(c)2012 The Miami Herald
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