When I campaigned against the sitting Broward County Mayor in 2010, I had a plan for my time as your County Commissioner. That plan was the 4/4/4 Plan and it included four strategic issues to assist in rebuilding our local economy.
One of those issues was to work to bring a Convention Center Hotel to Broward County. I went on to point out the obvious to those of us who live here in South Florida: “We live in a perfect area for business conferences, annual meetings, and international expos.” My pledge was and remains this: “As County Commissioner, I pledge to you that I won’t be ‘up for sale’ when it comes to voting for progress in our county. Projects like a convention center hotel are needed to bring jobs to the area as well as market Broward County effectively.”
I restate this point because this is a key drawback when planning a business or international trade event in Broward County. We have been in a steady decline in unemployment numbers, which indicates that we are heading in the right direction. We remain lower than our neighboring counties and our state in this key indicator. At the start of this year, the numbers were this: Florida 9.9%, Miami-Dade 10.2%, Palm Beach 9.8% and Broward 8.5%. As of May, the numbers had improved throughout the state: Florida 8.7%, Miami-Dade 9.6%, Palm Beach 8.5% and Broward 7.2%. This shows that our number one industry has been helping to put people back to work. That industry is our tourism industry and the most prolific statistic is that the economic impact of tourism has increased for 29 straight months. This impact has been felt all around our county.
As the owner of a construction company, nobody understands the issue of unemployment better, but I like to look at every challenge as a project. In doing so I like to ‘lay the groundwork’ in creating a solution. The groundwork in this case is the momentum shown above in the positive direction of our local economy. The missing piece in Broward County being the first choice for many business or trade groups is our lack of a Headquarter Convention Center Hotel. This hotel in concept should be physically located at our Broward County Convention Center and be attached so that visitors can come and go from their meetings to their rooms and the amenities of such a facility. As a County Commission, we have started to make the Convention Center more user-friendly by putting a plan forward to move the Port Security Checkpoint past the Convention Center entrance. This will enable users to enter the building, without entering the secure areas of Port Everglades.
The concept of a Headquarter Convention Center Hotel is not a new idea. As a matter of fact, it has been one of the nagging issues before the Broward County Commission for many years. It was put forth in the early 1990’s and included an International Trade Mart. After much deliberation and negotiation, this plan failed to move forward. The second attempt was just before the millennium and the county committed to providing an $11 million investment in a minority-owned and operated 500-room facility that was to be open by Halloween 2003. The scary part was in the financial details as the county learned that they would be on the hook if the developer failed to make the payments. The third time was recently in 2006 and there were finally two excellent projects for the county to choose from. One was a project to be a $506 million project that was 100% privately-funded and another was a project that started at $398 million and quickly rose to $460 million and was to be funded using the bed tax dollars to back the construction costs.
I go through this abbreviated history because people need to know the background of this project so that they can really understand what we have lost. According to Nicki Grossman, the President of the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), we have lost some serious economic activity since these projects have failed. Nicki and her team have created a portfolio of hundreds of wonderful hotels in the Greater Fort Lauderdale Area. This portfolio of hotels has kept many large conventions coming back year after year. Unfortunately, we are now learning that some of our business cannot commit to returning to our sunny paradise. They cite our lack of a convention center hotel and a need for a larger convention facility. We have lost an estimated $61M in 2006, $47M in 2007, $43M in 2008, $54M in 2009, $33M in 2010 and $35M in 2011. One group in particular, ARVO-the Association of Vision in Ophthalmology, was a client for dozens of years and booked 20,000 room nights annually. Additionally, we have lost business due to the size of our convention center. This impact has averaged $8M annually.
The basis of these issues is different though. The hotel and tourism industry collects what is commonly called a “bed tax” from visitors to our hotels throughout Broward County. These business-owners put their lives into making their customers’ stay a memorable one. In return, they are looking for those important bed tax dollars to go into marketing and other efforts to bring these customers back and add new ones each year. Through many conversations with these important members of our community, I have learned that they understand that some of this funding may go into the expansion of the Broward County Convention Center, but they are hesitant to support the funding to build a competing hotel facility.
It will be my effort to bring this issue forward again and in doing so I would expect to see a creative process like a Public/Private Partnership (PPP) to make the Broward County Headquarter Convention Center Hotel finally become a reality. If we do not move forward with this project, then we will become an afterthought to our neighbors to the north and south. Palm Beach County has pledged to invest $27 million dollars towards a $100 million project and Miami-Dade has been in talks to invest nearly $100 million towards a project that has estimates closing in on $650 million. We can do this without leveraging any vital tax dollars because we have the most valuable asset to offer at Port Everglades…waterfront property. Stay tuned to see how this moves forward and pledge to speak out to your county commissioner as it does.
As always, it is an honor to serve you.