A state appeals court ruling in September striking down a referendum that would have allowed Miami Beach voters to ratify a billion dollar agreement that the Miami Beach Commission reached with New York developer Tishman for the development of the Miami Beach Convention Center set a pause button on the project. Given that Miami Beach’s financial future is at stake, the commission’s 5-2 vote in favor of Tishman’s bid in July was understandably contested and discussions about the choice are often times heated and acrimonious.
Now, in the wake of the court’s decision preventing the winning bid to go to voters, the commission and Beach residents face critical decisions in the near future. The most important of those choices will be Nov. 5 as the mayor’s post and two commission seats are up for grabs.
The results of these elections can radically alter the fate of Miami Beach’s future. The voters can retain the present commission (virtually intact) — Mayor Matti Bower is now running for commissioner after terming out as mayor, and Commissioner Michael Gongora is bidding for the mayor’s seat. Or Beach residents can make a hard right turn and rebuke the judgment of the present commission that has received its share of fiery criticism over the last few years — not just because of the controversial convention center decision but also because of the troubles with a city manager, corruption among city employees, and a seemingly unruly police department.
After more than a decade of wrangling over the renovation of the convention center, perhaps it is time to step back and assess whether the present deal is as transparent or advantageous for the city. Philip Levine, who is running for mayor, explained to me this week that, “the convention center decision is one of the single most important issues any Miami Beach official has ever voted on and yet this commission decided to go with a proposal that didn’t include two major details, the scope and the price.”
Michael Gongora, who has served as commissioner for five years and voted for the Tishman proposal, positions it quite differently, “I sat through every meeting and every presentation and came to the conclusion that this was the best, albeit not perfect, plan. I think what’s in the best interest of Miami Beach residents is that we promptly sit down and iron out the necessary details with the Tishman group and take it to a special election in early 2014.” The special election Gongora mentioned would cost the taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars extra.
Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who cast one of the two dissenting votes against the Tishman plan and spearheaded the campaign group, Let Miami Beach Decide, which was a party to the suit that led to the decision by the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami, said he is “hopeful there will be wholesale changes and we can readdress this issue by opening up the bidding process again if we have to.”
One of the big sticking points of the deal was the adjoining hotel that the developer would build. Those who support a convention hotel argue that convention-goers could not negotiate good group rates at the Beach’s existing hotels. Wolfson as well as Levine would decouple the hotel from the deal and reframe the scope of the renovation to be done.
“I’m greatly concerned that the commission didn’t take its own city manager’s advice who said he would have chosen another bidder who would have cost the public less and gotten construction done quicker,” added Levine.
Everyone is in agreement that the renovation of the convention center is long overdue. However, given the flaws in the commission’s decision as per the court’s ruling, perhaps the best remedy is to follow the course set by the results of the Nov. 5 mayoral and commission elections and let the voters of Miami Beach cast their own fate.