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Jacksonville's Convention Center blues: What's next?

Now that the Downtown Investment Authority has decided to delay investing in a convention center, there are four logical things the DIA and the mayor's office should consider as they ponder what to do next.

1. Scale down design scope back to market reality

They say the devil is always in the details, and this quote definitely applies to the circus involving the future relocation of Jacksonville’s convention center. Downtown West Palm Beach’s Palm Beach County Convention Center presents a spectacular setting for conventions, trade shows, meetings and social events.

An architectural masterpiece with state-of-the-art amenities, the 350,000 square-foot center features a 100,000 square-foot exhibit hall, a 22,000 square-foot ballroom and 21,000 square feet of flexible breakout space divisible into 19 rooms.

However, despite opening its doors in January 2004, the immaculate facility did not turn a profit until 2017, despite serving a county with 1.5 million residents, 7.9 million annual tourists and being across the street from a popular mixed-use shopping, dining and entertainment district that opened in 2000. It took the opening of the connected $110 million, 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach hotel to turn the complex into one that attracts longer-term bookings that typically draw out-of-town visitors to Downtown West Palm Beach. Prior to the hotel’s January 2016 opening, 85 percent of the convention center’s business consisted of short-term events, attracting attendees that didn’t typically stay at area hotels, shop at local stores, visit tourist attractions or eat at restaurants.

The cost, scale, market-size, context and profitability of West Palm Beach and its downtown convention center presents several questions for Jacksonville and its convention center dilemma. According to a June 2017 convention center study commissioned by the DIA, project area requirements for a Jacksonville convention center recommended a minimum 200,000-square-foot exhibition hall, 40,000-square-foot ballroom, at least 45 meeting and breakout rooms, a full-service restaurant, optional transient boat slips, a 350-room full-service convention center hotel and a 1,700 space parking garage.

Limiting the evaluation of resolving the city’s convention center problem with bloated minimum design criteria is a disservice to private sector businesses that have already invested in downtown and taxpayer’s pockets.

Using the real-life experience of the Palm Beach County Convention Center alone should be enough to question the validity of such lofty numbers. Why would a much smaller and significantly less tourist-friendly destination need a convention center and exhibition hall that’s twice the size of West Palm Beach’s? There’s also nothing planned, including at the sports district, that’s going to change that dynamic between Palm Beach and Jacksonville.

Are we going after things that are too big for our britches? Also, let’s not forget that the Palm Beach County Convention Center lost money for thirteen straight years until it made a whopping $118,404 in net revenue in 2017 after an additional investment of a $110 million hotel next door… which brings us to the Hyatt.

Read things to consider No. 2-4 on ModernCities.com.