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Petitions could throw wrench in Miami Beach convention center redevelopment

Seven thousand signatures could stand in the way of a billion-dollar plan to overhaul the Miami Beach Convention Center District.

The signatures were collected in a petition drive that takes aim at one of the most ambitious urban development projects going on in the country: Miami Beach’s plan to lease public land in the heart of South Beach to pay for renovations to the city’s inadequate convention center.

Armed with money from the Fontainebleau hotel, Commissioner Jonah Wolfson launched the petition to force the city to changes its rules regarding leasing or selling public land that would be involved in the convention center deal.

He delivered the signatures to Miami Beach’s city clerk on Tuesday, and the petition was formally presented to elected officials at Wednesday’s regular commission meeting.

Wolfson only needed about 4,500 signatures to get his proposal on a city ballot. The fact that so many voters signed his petition sends a message, he said. He referred to the Dolphins’ recent failed bid for hotel tax money to renovate the football team’s stadium.

“The people are tired of these sort of corporate giveaways,” Wolfson told the Miami Herald. “On the heels of the Dolphins’ failed effort to get public money, the concept of giving away public land is a distasteful concept.”

But a city consultant handling the convention center deal has determined that private developers would make millions in lease payments to Miami Beach. Those payments would help the city pay for renovations to the convention center, the ownership of which would stay in the public’s hands.

On the other hand, the petition’s partial-funder, the Fontainebleau, which has ballroom space and meeting rooms, could face competition from a new convention center — though hotel representatives have said that they cater to a different market.

Wolfson says the city has enough money to pay for the renovations without the extra leases, but the city’s consultant has said otherwise.

Wolfson’s petition proposes to change the city charter so that at least 60 percent of the voters must approve the sale, lease or conveyance of almost all city land within the convention center district. The city’s current rules require only a simple majority vote, and only for certain portions of the district.

Miami Beach is in the final stages of selecting a development team to undertake the convention center project, which spans 52-acres of public land. Some of the country’s most prominent developers — New York-based Tishman Hotel & Realty and Portman-CMC, headed by Atlanta-based Portman Holdings — and world-renowned architects have applied for the chance to land the deal.

According to the city’s rules, the city clerk needs to make sure Wolfson’s petition is in the proper format and the signatures need to be verified. Then, Miami Beach’s legal office would have to make sure the ballot questions posed in the petition are legal.

Things aren’t so clear after that.

Once Miami Beach selects a development team, that team’s plan in all likelihood would be put to a city vote because the two finalists vying to land the project both propose leasing city land that already requires a public referendum for approval. It has been assumed that the question would be put on the November ballot of the city’s regular election cycle.

It’s unclear what would happen if both Wolfson’s proposal and the already-required ballot question both end up on the same ballot -- and what would happen if one proposal passes but not another, or if both pass at the same time.

Wolfson’s motivation for launching the petition drive was questioned at Wednesday’s commission meeting, which devolved into some tense moments of accusation-swapping.

Commissioner Michael Góngora said petition gathers were bused in from out of town, were paid for their work and were trained to tell residents that the convention center project would stuff the pockets of private developers.

Commissioner Ed Tobin was more direct: “We feel like you’ve lied and betrayed the get them to sign the petition," he told Wolfson.

Though the organization Wolfson formed to collect signatures hasn’t had to submit any financial reports yet, Wolfson has acknowledged that the Fontainebleau has contributed to the effort. He said former Beach Mayor David Dermer and other residents also have contributed.

The hotel had bid on the convention center deal, but lost.

Fontainebleau spokesman Joseph Gerbino said the hotel supports renovation and expansion of the Miami Beach Convention Center. He added that the company does not object to the project including a new hotel, provided that no public monies, taxes or subsidies are used in its development.

Wolfson says his only motivation is to prevent the city from getting into a bad deal and he has no further political aspirations once his term is up.

“I don’t want lease agreements like that with large swaths of public land that are integral to the city’s health,” Wolfson said. “It’s too big a power to wield over small government.”

City observers say it’s too early to worry about how Wolfson’s petition could affect the convention center deal. Once a developer is picked — a vote is expected to take place July 17 — the city can work on educating voters about the deal, said Stuart Blumberg, chairman of the Miami Beach Convention Center Advisory Board and founder of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association.

Tobin told the Herald: “It’s just a question of spending more money to educate the voters that somebody’s trying to trick them.