Miami Beach

Cruise ship hotels, zoo parties and an NBA arena: Miami's Democratic convention pitch

Former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas helped negotiate a deal to build the AmericanAirlines Arena on public land with private finacing.
Former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas helped negotiate a deal to build the AmericanAirlines Arena on public land with private finacing.

Speeches at AmericanAirlines Arena, meetings in the Miami Beach Convention Center, fundraisers at Vizcaya Gardens, parties at the zoo, and delegates sleeping on cruise ships — those are some of the options officials in Miami-Dade plan to pitch Democrats this week in a bid to host the party's 2020 national convention.

The mayors of Miami-Dade County, Miami and Miami Beach will promote the region to the Democratic National Committee in Washington on Friday, touting South Florida's diversity, attractions and experience hosting major events in an effort to attract a massive political convention that officials say they could pull off without spending any taxpayer dollars.

The convention would bring more than 30,000 visitors to the Miami area, making it one of the county's biggest events, and would also carry a hefty price tag — an estimated $50 million-plus.

The cities don't expect to foot the bill, however; a "host committee" would raise the funds from private contributions. Organizers also expect to get a federal grant to cover security costs. When Philadelphia hosted the Democrats' convention in 2016, for example, the city was awarded $43 million to pay for expenses such as police overtime and safety equipment.

If Miami-Dade is chosen, it would be the first time in nearly 50 years that Miami Beach will host a major political convention. The city was the site of both the Democratic and Republican conventions in 1972, but widespread protests outside the Republican convention overwhelmed South Beach, prompting the mayor to vow that the city would never again invite a political party to host its national convention on the island.

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If Miami-Dade is chosen to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention, speeches would likely be held at the AmericanAirlines Arena. David Santiago dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Miami-Dade still has to beat Houston and Milwaukee to win the 2020 bid. Denver, the other finalist chosen last week, withdrew its bid after the DNC picked the dates of July 13-16, citing previously scheduled events. Competition will likely be fierce. The host city stands to make a lot of money from the event: The 2016 convention generated $230 million in economic benefits for Philadelphia, according to estimates from the local convention and visitors bureau.

In Miami-Dade, the wealth would be spread throughout the county, said Marcia Monserrat, the convention liaison and chief of staff to Miami Beach's city manager.

Organizers plan to hold speeches and voting to select the Democratic nominee at AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami and caucus meetings at the newly renovated Miami Beach Convention Center. Dozens of smaller events, including fundraisers and welcome parties for state delegations, would likely take place at hotels, museums, and other event spaces such as Zoo Miami.

The event would come at an opportune time for hotels and other tourism-related businesses, said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, since summer is typically the slow season.

"Filling a destination community up in July with people interested in seeing our sights and spending money is obviously an economic driver," Gelber said. "Additionally, the eyes of the world will be on us for that week, which also enhances our status as one of the great destinations."

The revenue won't just be spread out geographically, Monserrat said. The convention would likely benefit businesses catering to visitors across the economic spectrum. In addition to upscale hotel rooms, the DNC has asked for low-cost accommodations, such as college dorms. Organizers are also considering cruise ships as a possible option for accommodations. "In a political convention there are people passionate about politics at every level," Monserrat said.

A massive undertaking

That's not to say hosting the convention wouldn't present logistical and financial challenges.

The DNC's request for proposals, which the committee sent to Miami Beach and seven other cities in April, is a nearly 100-page document full of specific requirements related to security, venues, transportation, hotels, and even environmental standards. Miami withdrew its bid to host the convention in 2016 after organizers realized they didn't have enough time to put together a winning proposal.

While officials expect the host committee's fundraising to cover the costs, cities probably will have to foot the bill for some initial expenses with the expectation that they'll get reimbursed later, Monserrat said. The host city, or its host committee, is responsible for covering big-ticket items including event spaces and transportation. That means the host committee would have to pay for use of the AmericanAirlines Arena and the Miami Beach Convention Center and grant convention organizers unlimited access to the venues starting weeks before the event, according to the request for proposals.

Hotels planning to host delegates and other attendees would have to commit most or all of their rooms. The DNC has asked for 15,000 hotel rooms and 1,000 suites within 20 minutes of AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami.

The room requirement would take up about 29 percent of Miami-Dade's total room supply, making it a large convention compared to the type that Miami is used to hosting, said Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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The Miami Beach Convention Center, pictured on August 8, 2017, is currently being remodeled. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

But it wouldn't be an outlier. The bureau has booked conventions on that scale in the past, including a whopping 25,000-person chief of police convention coming to the county in 2024.

The DNC has also requested that about half of the rooms fall in the $200-$300 range, something that in Miami-Dade is more doable in the summer when prices are typically lower. According to data and analytics firm STR, the average daily rate in July 2017 was $159, about on par with previous years. Hotels in downtown Miami and Miami Beach generally command a higher rate than the average.

Where Miami-Dade does face a hiccup is with the DNC's headquarter hotel requirement, which calls for a nearby hotel with at least 1,000 rooms and 150 suites. Only one hotel in Miami-Dade fits that bill: The Fontainebleau Miami Beach.

But there may be room to negotiate, Aedo said. "This is very common: There is a wish list that ... typically is adjusted based on the unique aspects of the community," Aedo said.

Overall, the bureau said it was confident it can fulfill most of the Democrats' requests and make up for some of the areas where it falls short by highlighting Miami-Dade's other amenities.

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Delegates celebrate as Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016. Jabin Botsford The Washington Post

"We've done large events like this in the past and we are confident that through the efforts of the bureau, we will identify sufficient rooms and the key hotel properties that they or any other convention will want to make their experience as seamless as possible," Aedo said.

Hotel rooms aren't the only logistical challenge. The host committee's fundraising goal could also prove a tall order. In addition to covering event costs, the committee must have $5 million in the bank before signing a contract with the DNC and a line or letter of credit for up to $20 million to cover potential funding shortfalls.

Although the DNC has final say over host committee leadership, the host city proposes possible members. The list included in Miami-Dade's proposal includes former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and major Democratic donors such as John Morgan and Barbara Stiefel.

Alex Heckler, a lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser on the host committee, said he is confident the committee could raise the necessary funds from a committed base of corporate and individual donors, adding that local grassroots activists will also play a role.

"The donor community in both Miami and all of Florida understands the benefit of having the convention in Florida," he said. "This state happens to have a very committed and enthusiastic donor community who are already excited about just the prospect of hosting the 2020."

Pitching residents

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Downtown Miami has soared thanks to an influx of foreign money since the recession. But not all of it is clean. C.M. Guerrero cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

In Miami-Dade, officials and tourism groups are convinced the benefits outweigh the risks.

Although Miami Beach first proposed the idea of hosting the 2020 convention, officials in Miami and Miami-Dade have enthusiastically joined the bid.

Several potential venues listed in the proposal are on the mainland in the city of Miami, including AmericanAirlines Arena, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Marlins Park, both bayfront museums and Museum Park.

"Events of this size are regional in nature," said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. "They're not really city-specific."

Suarez, a Republican, said partisan politics are not a factor because he believes the event would bring positive publicity for the greater Miami area and strengthen the region's brand.

"I suspect if we were pitching the Republican National Convention, Mayor Gelber would still partner with us," he said.

In their DNC proposal, the three mayors extolled Miami-Dade's beaches, hotels and restaurants and stressed that the county has already pulled off major events, including Art Basel and the Super Bowl.

"Miami serves as a thriving epicenter of cultural diversity, business, entertainment and tourism," Suarez said in a letter included in the proposal. "We don't only enjoy perfect weather, but our community is just as warm and welcoming."

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Outside the 1972 Republican National Convention, protesters marched with an elephant down Meridian Avenue in Miami Beach. Miami Herald Collection, HistoryMiami Museum

But Miami's weather isn't perfect in the summer. In 2012, Republicans delayed the start of their national convention in Tampa because of Tropical Storm Isaac, which later developed into a hurricane.

And city officials don't just have to sell their proposal to the DNC. They also have to convince residents that it's a good idea to host the convention. Big events can bring big traffic headaches and residents typically bemoan anything that makes the county's gridlock worse.

Monserrat said organizers plan to bus participants between venues to avoid putting more cars on the road and noted that participants staying near the convention center will have the option of walking or using bike shares. Miami Beach officials also expect a new express bus across the Julia Tuttle Causeway to be up and running before the convention starts.

A national political convention can also draw protesters and other security concerns. The last time Miami Beach hosted a national political convention, in 1972, anti-war protesters outside the Republican National Convention clashed with police and delegates, and vandals smashed windows along Collins Avenue.

Pulling off an event on this scale would require close collaboration between municipal and county officials and their respective police forces, a level of cooperation Miami-Dade, Miami and Miami Beach have long enjoyed, Monserrat said.

"It is crucial for us to be able to show we're connected," during Friday's presentation to the DNC, she said. "We understand that Miami Beach couldn't do this alone."

After the finalist cities present their proposals to the DNC this week, the committee plans to conduct site visits in July and August. Following contract negotiations, the DNC will announce the 2020 host city in January.

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report
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