|By Doreen Hemlock, Sun
SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 05, 2013--Losing hundreds of millions of dollars in convention business to cities with better facilities, Broward County is again tackling the issue of upgrading its convention center site.
The county commission will meet April 16 to discuss a new study on adding an adjacent hotel and more meeting space to compete.
The county has tried to develop an adjacent hotel three times since the convention center was built in 1989, each time with no success. The largest annual convention held in Broward left after two decades last year, saying it had outgrown the meeting space and needed an adjoining hotel, too.
Executives of the Broward Workshop, a group of 100 business leaders, said Thursday that the convention center now ranks as a top priority and requires a master plan beyond just a proposed hotel.
"The county commission has kicked this ball around for too many years," Broward Workshop chairman Harry Moon said at a Sun Sentinel editorial board meeting on Thursday. "It needs immediate attention."
Broward expects to lose $400 million in business and 960,000 room nights between 2008 and 2016 for lack of a convention center hotel and the expansion needed to compete with sites in other second-tier cities such as Nashville, according to Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. It does not aim to compete with mega-destinations like Miami or Orlando.
Grossman hopes the county would work in a private-public partnership to support development of a roughly 750-room hotel next to the convention center and to add some 80,000 square feet of meeting space by 2017. Hotel costs would be about $225 million and the expansion around $85 million, she said.
"Then we could compete fairly with other tier-two convention sites around the country," said Grossman.
The county funded building of the 600,000-square-foot convention center partly with bonds repaid with the so-called bed tax collected from visitors who stay at Broward hotels and other lodging. Those bonds will be paid off this year, making now "the appropriate time to bring up convention center expansion," she said.
The hotel project on county land would use private financing but work closely with the visitors bureau.
Some Broward leaders already are discussing the possibility of raising the bed tax by one cent to fund the convention center expansion and finance other tourism-related ventures.
Numerous reasons contributed to the failure of previous efforts to build a convention center hotel.
Some Fort Lauderdale hoteliers had questioned the need for a headquarters hotel when tourism were slower, especially during the recession. But "there's not the opposition there once was," Broward Workshop vice chairman Charles Caulkins said, noting that the number of visitors to the area continues to improve.
The study to be discussed by the commission this month found there is demand for more hotel rooms near the convention center. Meeting planners say they would prefer to have rooms integrated into the center and not a bus ride or taxi ride away, according to the report by hospitality consultants HVS.
Recent efforts to build a headquarters hotel also inadequately considered the interests of nearby retail and commercial properties, said Mark Ellert, a partner in Portside Yachting Center, which owns buildings next to the convention center at 17th Causeway and Eisenhower Boulevard.
"We need a vision for a world-class convention center destination" beyond just a hotel and meeting space, said Ellert. "And it's best capitalized by collaboration and cooperation among all stakeholders."
Stakeholders include Port Everglades, because the convention center is at the seaport's edge. Visitors now must pass through port guard stations to reach the center, an inconvenience and delay that has turned off some meeting planners from Broward.
But that problem is on the way to being fixed, Grossman said. A bypass road is being designed that would allow visitors to the convention center to enter directly and not go through the seaport checkpoints. The project is funded and set to be completed by early 2015, said Grossman.
The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthamology convention departed from Broward because of insufficient facilities. It brought some 12,000 people to the convention center in recent years for its five-day meeting, up from 7,000 it had attracted in 2003. The convention's departure meant the loss of $13 million in annual economic impact for the county, according to visitors bureau estimates.
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