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Supporters push for larger convention center

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The Florida Times-Union


(former Jacksonville Terminal & existing convention center)

Supporters continue push for larger convention center

Consultants could identify the top one or two downtown sites for a larger Jacksonville convention center within three months, and don't be surprised if a riverfront location tops the list.

"If you contact business leaders, the majority are talking about putting in on the riverfront," said supporter Jack Diamond, chairman of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Any site would need to be near at least 500 hotel rooms and be at least 10 to 15 acres, he said.

Sites under consideration appear to include:

On the Northbank: Land in the sports complex; at The Shipyards; and at the existing Duval County Courthouse and City Hall Annex, whose operations eventually will move. The Shipyards and courthouse sites are near the Adam's Mark Hotel, while a sports complex location would need a hotel.

On the Southbank: The site of the former JEA generating station; and, assuming a move could be made, the School Board building property. Both are near the Radisson Riverwalk Hotel and the Jacksonville Hilton.

The existing Prime Osborn Convention Center, if expanded and accompanied by a hotel, although it is not waterfront.

While Mayor John Peyton said the convention center expansion is not a priority, promoters are seeking support for what they call an economic development engine that could generate at least 1,000 to 2,000 jobs and at least $1 billion in economic impact over 10 years.

Promoters want at least preliminary plans in place for the February Super Bowl so they can market it to visiting corporate leaders. He said if the project is approved this year, it could be completed in 2007.

Diamond estimates he and CVB President Kitty Ratcliffe have made at least 70 presentations to groups to "create the case" for a complex larger than the 78,000-square-foot Prime Osborn.

Diamond, a principal with Rink Reynolds Diamond Fisher Wilson, spoke Wednesday to the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce Arlington Council. He reminded the group that the Prime Osborn ranks 205th nationwide in meeting and exhibition space size, surpassed by cities that include Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., and Memphis.

"In essence, we're not even in the ballgame," he said. He said the Prime Osborn can compete for just 4 percent to 5 percent of available conventions.

Diamond said supporters are trying "to create the groundswell" for a complex comprising at least 250,000 square feet of exhibition space, 65,000 square feet of meeting space, a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and a 1,500-space parking garage.

His first goal is to create the case for a larger center, the second is to identify a site and the third is to identify funding. He said that the "box" for the building could run $90 million, not counting land costs, infrastructure, equipment and other expenses.

Diamond said audiences are supportive and that he met with each City Council member, Peyton's staff, Jacksonville Economic Development Commission Executive Director Kirk Wendland and other decision makers.

Next is site selection. He wants a consultant hired within 30 days to analyze sites and make a recommendation within three months. Then comes funding, and he insists there are avenues for that.

"We have to have the political will to do it," Diamond said.

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The city definately needs a new convention center, as soon as possible. Its a disgrace for a city the size of Jacksonville to have a convention center so small. Sometimes I think if they are going to expand it, then they should just close it altogether.

It would be in the community's best interest to turn Prime Osborne back into its original use as a major transportation terminal. It would be an ideal site to move Amtrak, possible commuter rail, greyhound, and the city bus terminals. It has a skyway station and it sits right next to I-95. Some kind of local history museum should also be included at the center. Then the city should look to sell off the surrounding surface parking areas to developers for infill urban projects between the station and downtown. The selling of the land would help pay for a new convention center, as well as bring more residents and skyway riders in an under utilized central area of town.

As far as the new convention center goes. I think the prefect site would be the Radisson Hotel and Chart House Restaurant land on the Southbank. Radisson is already considering tearing down and rebuilding the hotel after the super bowl. The site is huge enough to accommodate a new highrise hotel and convention center on the river, plus its across the street from a skyway station, so visitors can easily access the rest of downtown.

Now the only question is, where is the money going to come from?

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I couldn't have said it better myself, Lakelander! Jacksonville's Amtrack station needs to be located downtown, and the city is planning commuter rail lines that will reach out to the suberbs. An intermodal facility, especially one so historic and beautiful, would be ideal.

If I had my pick, I would build a new convention center somewhere near the Shipyards, but I wouldn't make it waterfront. I would leave waterfront land to be used by the private sector. (i.e. condos) Also, I think that a new facility, along with other development would make a nice entertainment area. Hotels, Retail, a Movie Theatre, and Plazas would all blend nicely with the convention center.

And I thought that the generating station was already going to be developed, after the Super Bowl. It was going to be residential and retail, right?

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I agree if Amtrack or CSX would agree to keep the Prime Osborn as a train station. If not, I could not bear to see such a nice landmark unused. I think they could build a separate convention center across the street, then connect them like in Orlando. the city owns a lot of land in that area and I think they need to put it to use.

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