County mayor backs downtown Miami convention center

02/26/2014 4:57 PM

02/26/2014 6:34 PM

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez threw his support Wednesday behind a convention center in downtown Miami, saying the county could use another major conference space in addition to the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The endorsement marked the first time Gimenez has publicly backed making downtown’s Miami Worldcenter project an alternative, capping years of Miami leaders pushing for a modern center to compete with the Beach.

Gimenez revealed his support as part of a wide-ranging State of the County speech in which he acknowledged challenges over the past year. He tried to portray the challenges as new opportunities for county government to become more efficient.

“Our last year was difficult,” he told a packed house at the Milander Auditorium in Hialeah. “And I don’t mind getting some battle scars along the way.”

The mayor appeared keen to take on his critics, who have accused him of being aloof and short-sighted, by maintaining an upbeat tone and mentioning big-ticket projects that remain far off in the future.

If there was a theme to his broad remarks, delivered to a room full of administrators and County Hall movers and shakers, it was that politicians and businesses should be ambitious and inclusive in their plans for the county.

“The world sees us as one Miami,” the mayor said. “It’s time we see ourselves that way also.”

He maintained his support for building a light rail line to connect the mainland to the Beach, a long-stalled idea that has recently gained new traction.

But he warned the county should not expect to receive state or federal funds for the project, which is likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, saying the responsibility for costly improvements to roads and pipes would fall to local government.

Still, Gimenez said he plans to lobby Florida lawmakers this year together with the mayors of Broward and Palm Beach counties as part of a regional approach to solving shared problems and seeking state funding.

Gimenez has long pushed for renovating the Beach convention center, and he said Wednesday he would continue to do so. But, he added, “There’s also room for more than one convention and conference center in Miami-Dade County.

“People are already coming, so why not give them world-class space to host their conventions and conferences?” Gimenez said.

The multi-block Miami Worldcenter project includes a Marriott convention complex to be built at the site of the old Miami Arena, with 1,800 rooms and enough exhibition space to fill about one of the Miami Beach Convention Center’s four halls.

Beach voters approved new rules last November making it more difficult to proceed with a planned remodeling to the city-owned convention center. Gimenez said he met with new Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who wants to renovate the center in smaller chunks.

After his speech, Gimenez told reporters he is not endorsing using public money on the project. But his comments could bolster an effort by Worldcenter developers to seek some form of government support.

Marc Sarnoff, the Miami City commissioner who represents downtown, told the Miami Herald later Wednesday that a city convention center drawing large groups to Miami-Dade should share in the county’s tourism revenue.

“Why would it be the red-headed stepchild?” Sarnoff asked.

Worldcenter developers plan to pursue creation of a special taxing district that could let it tap into property-tax revenue to fund infrastructure and parking similar to what was created for the Midtown Miami complex, according to two people familiar with the project. Most convention centers operate at a loss, and the Miami Beach Convention Center receives more than $4 million a year in county hotel taxes to pay for maintenance and operating expenses.

In his speech, Gimenez touted private-sector partnerships as a way for Miami-Dade to fund large projects.

Later this year, Gimenez said he plans to travel on a county-sponsored trade mission to Brazil.

He didn’t name Airport City, the controversial development planned for just east of Miami International Airport that would be built as a private-public partnership by Odebrecht USA, a subsidiary of a Brazilian engineering and construction conglomerate.

Gimenez only briefly mentioned retired football star David Beckham, whose representatives are in negotiations with the county to explore building a Major League Soccer stadium on public land.

Though Gimenez did not go into the status of the talks, he argued that Beckham chose Miami because of its potential. Someday, Miami might host the Pan-American Games — or even the Olympics, the mayor suggested.

“We need to dream that big,” Gimenez said.

Of more immediate concern, however, is the troubled county budget, which administrators estimate will have a $42 million hole to fill this year and a $208 million hole next year. This year, Miami-Dade has an operating budget of $4.4 billion.

Gimenez didn’t linger on significant disagreements he has had with county commissioners and labor unions, which recently won back a pay concession against the mayor’s wishes.

“We all want to treat our employees fairly — at the end of the day, they are the public servants who are on the front lines delivering the services we provide,” Gimenez said.

But he reiterated that he would oppose tapping financial reserves to cover the budget gap, as some commissioners have asked — and he pledged to “hold the line” on the property-tax rate, which a few on the commission have argued should go up to maintain public services, particularly cash-strapped libraries.

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

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