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.