Miami Beach’s ambitious but perennially-challenged plan to overhaul its convention center district hangs in the balance this election season.
When voters go to the polls Tuesday, they will have a clear choice between candidates who want to see the massive project move forward, and those who want to see it drastically scaled down. Voters will also decide on a referendum that could make the project harder to ultimately pass.
If a new commission is elected and the referendum passes, it would represent a victory for one person in particular: current Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson.
Wolfson has led a one-man fight against the scope and scale of the current billion-dollar plan, which encompasses 52-acres of prime real estate smack in the middle of South Beach. It was Wolfson who landed the referendum on the ballot. He also successfully took his own city to court to get another ballot item — this one asking voters to approve the total convention center project — kicked off. And he did it all without the political support of his fellow commissioners, impressing even his staunchest opponents.
Current Mayor Matti Herrera Bower has clashed with Wolfson repeatedly. She is term-limited from the mayorship but is running for commission. She has supported the current version of the convention center overhaul.
“Jonah is very smart. I give him credit for that,” Bower said. “But I don’t think it’s fair, the way he’s doing it.”
Now, Wolfson is lending his clout to a slew of candidates who have been far more supportive of his vision for the district, among them, mayoral candidate Philip Levine and commission candidates Joy Malakoff and Michael Grieco. Other candidates have also campaigned on the need to down-scale the project.
“It’s a watershed election,” Wolfson said. “The community needs to decide what they want. Do they want to chose politics as usual, the folks who are onboard with a plan that could have buried us both fiscally and from a quality-of-life standpoint? Or do they want a commission that will handle this project responsibly?”
At the heart of the debate over the plan is not whether the city should renovate its convention center. All the politicos agree it has to be done. The convention business props up the hospitality industry on the Beach, which in turn props up the city budget with tourism taxes. Last year, $54 million poured into city coffers from tourism taxes.
Instead, the battle over the convention center lies in how big and expensive an overhaul should be.
Miami Beach put its convention center project through a months-long, public bidding process that pitted developers against each other. Beach commissioners in July selected a development team called South Beach ACE for the project. Under the plan chosen, taxpayers would pay the $600 million ACE says it will cost to renovate the convention center. Already city-owned, the convention center would stay in the city’s ownership. The public portion of the project would be paid for by an increase in hotel taxes that voters already approved, land leases and county taxes.
Under the plan approved by commissioners, ACE is responsible for building an adjacent, 800-room convention center hotel — at the development team’s own cost. The development team would lease city land for 99 years, and also build up to 90,000-square feet of shops and restaurants.
“No public money is being used to finance any private project,” Commissioner Michael Góngora said a recent debate. Góngora is running for mayor, and has been supportive of the current project.
Candidates such as Sherry Kaplan Roberts, running in Group I, have questioned the wisdom of leasing important city land for such a long time. Others, such as mayoral contender Steve Berke and Roger Abramson, who is running for Commission Group III, think the size of the proposed project loses sight of its original intention: to upgrade the convention center.
Levine called it “Disney World in the middle of our city.”
Others, especially Wolfson, question whether the project should include a hotel.
Tourism leaders say that the hotel is necessary to attract convention business few a few reasons. One, Miami Beach’s hotel prices are too expensive for convention-goers. Second, the Beach’s hotels are too small to accommodate large groups, costing meeting planners more time and money because they have to book stays at several locations. Studies paid for by the city back up these claims.
Surprisingly, much of the hotel industry on the Beach supports a convention center hotel. Coupled with the center’s renovation, industry leaders are confident there will be enough business to go around.
Peggy Benua is the incoming chair of the Greater Miami and the Beached Hotel Association, and general manager of the Dream South Beach. Though the Beach has enjoyed record occupancy and room rates, convention center business has been slipping, she said.
“Even a small hotel like Dream South Beach, we participate in every city-wide convention that we’re able to, and we count on that business. We need that mid-week business,” Benua said.
Wolfson isn’t buying it. Mainly because, he says, the suggested price point for the new convention center hotel is too high: about $400 a night, according to documents the developer has submitted to the city. People can pay that much to stay on the Beach, instead of the interior of the city, Wolfson noted. Plus, he said, 800 rooms at a suppressed rate is not enough to accommodate huge conventions like the ones the city wants to attract. Only a fraction would be able to stay on-site, while others will be forced to the more expensive locations.
His solution: not to build a hotel at all. Let the private sector take care of that. And let the city go after smaller, high-end conventions whose attendees would rather spend more for luxurious accommodations.
“We’re a high end destination,” Wolfson said.
At least one Beach hotel agrees. The Fontainebleau has donated at least $15,000 to Let Miami Beach Decide, an electioneering communications organization set up by Wolfson to help pay for his efforts against the current convention center plan. The hotel donated money that helped Wolfson collect more than 5,000 signatures in a petition to get a charter referendum on Tuesday’s ballot.
The final convention center plan — whatever it is — needs to be approved by voters. The current project was on the ballot, but Wolfson won a court battle to remove the question because the city hasn’t even worked out a lease with ACE yet.
In the meantime, Wolfson successfully launched a petition drive to change the amount of votes required to approve the project from a simple majority to a supermajority of 60 percent. The item is on Tuesday’s ballot.
What it all boils down to, said Stuart Blumberg, chair of the city’s convention center advisory board is one question: “Does Miami Beach want to be in the convention center business?”
Voters will soon decide.
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