Posted on Monday, 12.05.11
Miami Beach convention center supporters hedge casino bets
Some proponents of a Miami Beach Convention Center revamping remain opposed to casino resorts — for now.
Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower will make two public appearances Wednesday to discuss the Miami Beach Convention Center.
• Miami Beach Taxpayers Association, 8:30 a.m., Shelborne Hotel, 1801 Collins Ave.
• Mayor on the Move, 6 p.m. at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr.
BY DAVID SMILEY
While searching for investors to help pay for a pricy convention center expansion that his city wants but can’t afford, top Miami Beach administrator Jorge Gonzalez sat in Joe’s Stone Crab last month with a businessman he says offered to pay for the whole deal.
The man across the table was Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, and his pitch included a casino — something Miami Beach City Hall has repeatedly opposed.
“Once you get over that, then maybe it’s an attractive offer,” Gonzalez told The Herald. “But it’s not something the city has been prepared to consider or entertain.”
Beach officials expect to reaffirm their objections to South Florida casinos when they meet later this month, but that stance could bend as lobbying for luxurious casino resorts runs parallel with a push for an improved and expanded convention center.
Earlier this year, the city proposed $640 million in convention center renovations and adding two new halls to recapture major conventions that fill hotels and restaurants with free-spending tourists. Tourism leaders say substantial improvements, not seen in decades, are critical.
The facility has slipped from fourth in size nationally to 27th during the past 20 years. It’s the only large convention center without a headquarters hotel built or at least in the works. It has lost out on major conventions whose organizers enjoyed Miami Beach but said they wouldn’t return unless the facility was updated.
In addition, a recent economic study by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau found that $300 million in current and potential convention business could be lost during the next decade unless facilities are improved.
But although Miami Beach has a grand vision, the city has only $55 million in hand and is seeking support from the county, state and developers who could partner with it to build a hotel and perhaps a commercial complex on the center’s surrounding 50 acres.
As the city frets about funds, casino operators are lining up to invest billions into destination gaming resorts that could include enough convention space to make an expanded Miami Beach Convention Center irrelevant.
“I think the majority of the people are against it,” Mayor Matti Herrera Bower said about a proposed state bill that would allow for three $2 billion casino resorts in South Florida. “The issue is, what happens if it really passes?”
While only the Genting Group has unveiled images of what its massive and controversial resort would look like, Miami Beach could face instant and serious competition from Las Vegas Sands, which has expressed an interest in the Miami World Center site near the AmericanAirlines Arena.
As part of its proposal, The Sands, whose representatives did not respond to interview requests, has discussed building 1.5 million square feet of expo space — three times what Miami Beach currently offers.
State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, Republican-Fort Lauderdale, a co-sponsor of the destination casino resorts bill, said in an interview with The Miami Herald editorial board last week that resorts like the one proposed by The Sands could lure the large conventions that Miami Beach and Broward County can’t.
“We are a very untapped market,” she said. “The Miami Beach Convention Center is too small. Broward County has a convention center but no hotel and the hotels around it can’t handle large conventions. What do we have in South Florida?”
Despite the competition — or potential investment — posed by casino operators, some Miami Beach business and political leaders say convention center improvements and casino resorts shouldn’t be lumped into the same discussion.
“Our conversation should be about building the convention center and making the convention center relevant and top notch and we’ve completely lost it,” said Commissioner and Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce president Jerry Libbin. “We’re talking about gambling.”
Libbin says the city can’t wait for casinos to be approved or shot down before deciding what to do, and believes the city may need to downscale its vision to pay for renovations.
Still, Libbin met separately last month with Wynn and Caesars Palace senior vice president of development, Gregg Miller.
“I don’t see casinos in Miami Beach but I’m not willing to abdicate my responsibility to do the best possible thing for our residents,” Libbin said. “I need to stay engaged because if there’s casino legislation I want to make sure we manage the process and to the best of our ability have a seat at the table. If you just say ‘no,’ you’re done.”
Other officials have similarly hedged their anti-gaming bets. Commissioner Deede Weithorn said she remains opposed to casinos but wants a citywide referendum in case a majority of Beach voters feel differently.
Even Bower softened her stance during her recent re-election campaign from one of total opposition to being willing to consider gambling should the bill pass. She is pushing for community input this week and has called for a gaming vote when the Miami Beach Commission meets Dec. 14.
Stuart Blumberg, chairman of the city’s convention center advisory board and retired head of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, believes the city’s vote is critical. He said Miami Beach could damage its chances for a competitive convention center should it take another anti-gaming position this month only to watch the destination casino resort bill pass in Tallahassee.
“If the bill passes and The Sands winds up with one of the licenses, the Beach is definitely out of the deal,” he said. “The Beach could cut their own throat on the 14th.”
Amid the debate, Gonzalez, the Miami Beach city manager, has tried to move forward on the city’s vision.
In the past two weeks, he or his staff have met with 10 development companies, including Bouygues, the head of the consortium building the Miami Port Tunnel.
“What I’m not doing is sitting around waiting for what Tallahassee does and then reacting to it. My plan is to continue down the path I’m going on,” he said. “Until I’m told do something else.”