Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

About-face on Miami Beach


OUR OPINION: Scrapping development plan clouds future of convention and tourism industry

Miami Beach’s on-again, off-again effort to build a new convention center and hotel complex is suddenly off again, this time apparently for good.

Commissioners unanimously nixed the proposed $1-billion redevelopment plan last week and opted instead to renovate the existing center while scouting possible locations elsewhere on the Beach for a new hotel.

In terms of scale and ambition, as well as cost, what Mayor Philip Levine and the commission have in mind represents a significantly different approach compared to what the Miami Beach Commission envisioned when members voted 6-1 in December 2012 to overhaul and expand the dowdy convention center and surrounding city-owned land.

As a result of Wednesday’s vote, the earlier convention/hotel/retail footprint on 52 acres would be scrapped in favor of a smaller venue with a spruced-up, stand-alone convention center.

This is a decided setback for all those in the public and private sector who had hoped, after years of effort, that the Beach was on the way to building the kind of facility that can compete with other cities for major conventions, most of which include a large hotel to accommodate visitors who want the convenience of being on site.

Mayor Levine told the Editorial Board he is confident that with nearly $500 million available to Miami Beach from various sources, the city can build a state-of-the-art facility that will attract top-drawer conventions, regardless of size.

Clearly, the new plan reflects public sentiment by Beach voters. Mr. Levine and other newcomers on the commission made it clear when they ran for office last year that they opposed the existing convention plan and apparently convinced voters that they had a better idea. They followed through on their commitment, and the new plan eliminates the need for a public referendum, which cast a cloud over the future of the earlier plan.

All of this, Mr. Levine said, will ensure that the project moves ahead on a faster schedule. He said he would like to see “a finished product” in three years or less.

But the scaled-down version raises a number of questions. The hotel that some see as an indispensable part of complex — Mr. Levine does not — would follow on a different site. If an appropriate one can be found, that is. And if willing private-sector partners can be found.

And the sudden shift has raised dark rumblings from the development team known as SBACE, which believes the city is “contractually obligated to proceed” with the earlier plan it was tasked to build. A legal dispute, if that’s in the cards, might discourage other developers from getting involved with any new project.

The larger issue is what Miami Beach residents and its commission really want. After the vote, Mr. Levine told NBC6 News: “Miami Beach is about Art Basel, Miami Beach is about culture, Miami Beach is not about attracting massive conventions that don’t necessarily fit with who we are.”

If that means that Miami Beach is not interested in attracting the biggest conventions, which can lure thousands of visitors, others should leap into the breach.

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has said repeatedly the project is one of his top priorities. If he believes the Beach’s new plan fills the bill, he should say so. If not, it’s time for him and others to come up with a new plan and get behind it. The potential economic windfall for this community should not go untapped.

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