The new Miami Beach Convention Center hotel plan is already causing a ruckus

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On Tuesday, Miami Beach commissioners will discuss a new proposal for an 800-room convention center hotel, a project tourism leaders call “critical” and yet, in last year’s incarnation, failed to pass with voters.

The new hotel plan, workshopped for almost a year by an ad hoc committee, will give voters their first glimpse into the potential new addition to the already $600 million renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center. But it’s by no means a final version. At least some of those who have worked on the effort want the city to withhold its decision until more study is done.

Plans for the new hotel call for:

▪ An 800- to 1,000-room hotel no taller than 185 feet, the height of the Clock Tower building on Lincoln Road. According to a site plan prepared by the Miami Beach Planning Department, a potential design would call for an 800-room building, 12-stories high, or 145 feet. That would make it considerably smaller than last year’s proposal, which called for nearly a 300-foot, 25-story building with 800 rooms. The potential site plan also includes 284 parking spaces, 91,000 square feet of ballroom area and direct connection to the convention center.

▪ A hotel lease that allocates at least 80 percent of the hotel’s rooms for convention center events.

▪ A location between Washington Avenue and Convention Center Drive north of 17th Street. That is the current site of The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater, the 555 17th Street building and a parking lot. The plan calls for tearing down the current theater in phases, to minimize the time it spends closed, and rebuilding a new state-of-the-art Jackie Gleason Theater to be constructed of a similar size in a new location.

▪ A detailed traffic mitigation plan that includes road expansions at Alton Road and 17th Street, and Alton Road and North Michigan Avenue, a dedicated loading space for ride-sharing vehicles, shuttle service to and from the airport, a traffic management center, a connected trolley system with other key hotels, a pedestrian wayfinding system and an increased number of protected/connected bicycle facilities.

▪ A straw ballot to gauge public sentiment on the project before seeking a hotel developer.

The committee recommends that the plan come before voters in the August 2018 primary.

But until then, the scope of the project will likely be scrutinized. At least one former city commissioner has raised questions about whether a hotel of the proposed size will really be large enough to draw bigger conventions to the renovated center — the goal of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

On one side of the debate sits the bureau, which contends that the convention center renovation needs a headquarter hotel to compete for major meetings. On the other is Stuart Blumberg, former head of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, who argues that the hotel isn’t worth building because it won’t be enough to entice the kind of city-wide conventions the bureau is after, ones that require about 1,500 hotel rooms.

And there is the added wrinkle of the Gleason’s demolition, Blumberg says.

“You’re gonna tear down the Gleason and move it further east to accommodate a hotel you don’t need?” he said in an interview Monday.

But the bureau strongly refutes Blumberg’s claims. It points to the millions of dollars in lost business that has come as a result of the city having an unfavorable hotel package or a lack of convention center hotel.

As of March, the bureau lost $44.7 million in economic impact to the region (based on a $311 per-person average spend) from 16 conventions it was not able to book for Miami Beach because of hotel limitations.

At question is whether the hotel is needed. The members of the ad hoc committee, created by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, voted in favor of the project in June. Since then, at least one of its members has raised questions about the practicality of the hotel, which led to a consultant’s evaluation that questioned whether the project could achieve the bureau’s goals.

Miami Beach’s convention problem

At the heart of the matter is difficulty faced by meeting planners for a major convention that requires 1,500 hotel rooms. Currently, planners must secure room blocks in numerous hotels to accommodate large conventions. According to data provided by the tourism bureau, prospective clients have opted to take their meetings elsewhere to avoid that logistical headache.

For instance, the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation’s 2019 meeting chose Orlando instead, the bureau said, “due to rate & overall [hotel] package — less hotels than Miami would require.”

The International Spa Association stayed away because room rates were too high, and because they wanted to have their members in no more than three hotels, which was not possible in Miami Beach.

The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry annual meeting went to the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina because Miami could not host “all under one roof.”

Of the 34 conventions Miami Beach lost due to hotel-related issues, the majority, or 14, cited the need for multiple hotels as the main reason for turning elsewhere. Eleven of those specifically cited the need for a headquarter or anchor hotel.

The tourism bureau is hoping to attract city-wide conventions that need 1,500 rooms for their attendees. Based on typical availability, it would take 10 hotels in addition to a headquarter hotel to house a 1,500 room block — ameliorating, but not solving, the logistical issues for meeting planners.

Former Miami Beach Commissioner Saul Gross, who sits on the ad hoc convention center hotel committee, said this information led him to raise questions after the committee’s final vote in favor of the plan in June.

In emails between Gross and John Kaatz, principal at the consulting firm assisting the city, Kaatz said that the new hotel would represent a “cornerstone” feature that would be combined with room block commitments from “numerous” Beach hotels.

“I would say that the room block in Miami Beach will include more properties with smaller room commitments than a planner would see in many competitive markets,” Kaatz concluded.

That means that the issue of having to book multiple hotels would still exist, even with the large contribution of rooms from the headquarter hotel.

“Everybody was saying, ‘You get the headquarter hotel [and] we are home free, we are going to book our brains out,’ ” Blumberg said. “Is 600 rooms going to be the difference that makes [the new convention center] successful? Of course not.”

Making Miami Beach competitive

But William Talbert III, president and CEO of the tourism bureau, said the hotel is necessary for Miami Beach to compete with other major cities with a headquarter hotel.

“If virtually all of the competition has it, why are we behind?” Talbert asked. He cited similar convention centers like Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center that has two headquarter hotels, a 1,200-room property and a 1,000-room property.

With the $600 million convention center renovation due for completion by August 2018, the bureau is also refocusing its marketing efforts to attract city-wide conventions and deprioritize bookings for trade shows that attract day trippers, like the auto show, but don’t generate a lot of hotel room nights.

Still, Talbert said, a headquarter hotel in any city would never be able to accommodate everyone.

“The definition of a citywide convention is that it’s in multiple hotels,” he said. The new proposal was never meant to accommodate everyone at the conventions of the size the bureau hopes to book.

Gross emailed city commissioners in July saying he is not convinced a headquarter hotel would attract the type of conventions the bureau is seeking. But he said he is standing by his vote for a headquarter hotel because it would ease traffic and attract some additional meetings.

He said he feels there may be a middle ground.

“[The bureau] may need to adjust their target so that [the conventions they book] are a little bit smaller and they could be satisfied with the convention center hotel and maybe one or two other hotels,” Gross said in an interview. “…[But the hotel] good for the long term success of the convention center itself.”

Miami Herald writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

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