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Convention center issue looms for mayor

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Convention center could be the next big pain for mayor

The last thing Mayor John Peyton needs is another headache, but a large one could very well be headed his way.

He's still trying to win the wrestling match with the new county courthouse, and now poking its head into the ring is another potential behemoth -- the convention center.

Jack Diamond, an architect and longtime downtown advocate who is now chair of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Kitty Rat-cliffe, the group's president, have been beating the drums for a larger convention center for months.

They have given about 70 speeches promoting the idea. In their view, the options are to expand the Prime Osborn or to build a larger facility, preferably closer to the river.

It's that latter prospect that has supporters of the Prime Osborn steaming. Chief among them is Jake Godbold, who was mayor when the old train terminal was turned into the convention center and who is ready to go to war to stop the convention center from moving.

After being battered by the courthouse, Peyton probably doesn't relish the thought of having Godbold pounding on his door and reminding him, in all likelihood, that he had a lot to do with his election and could make his re-election more difficult -- most likely in a little more colorful language.

For his part, Peyton has consistently said a larger convention center is not a priority for him.

"We have a great agenda for what we want to do," Peyton said in an interview earlier this week. "A convention center is not one of those priorities. Someday it could be, but, in my mind, it is not today."

Peyton said that among his concerns is the cost -- one estimate is at least $100 million -- and that even if the city had the money, he's not convinced spending it on the convention center would be "the highest and best use."

Peyton said his top priority is raising per capita income and the jobs that come with a convention center, mostly in restaurants and hotels, are low paying.

Diamond argues that Peyton is wrong on that point.

He said this week that if an expanded convention center brought 15 large conventions to Jacksonville each year, it would have the same economic impact as the Super Bowl, only it would be year-in and year-out.

And, Diamond said, the jobs created would include high-wage support jobs.

Diamond said he doesn't want to predict the cost of a bigger convention center until a study determines what would be the best site.

Obviously, if the Prime Osborn were expanded or if other city-owned property were used, the cost would be less than if about 15 acres of land had to be purchased.

Diamond said the recommendation could be to expand at the current site, although it's clear he prefers a location closer to the river, which he sees as the city's greatest asset.

Possibilities for that include a convention center that is part of the sports and entertainment complex or part of the redevelopment of the old Southside Generating Station property.

Diamond believes much of the cost could be covered by bonding part of the current 6-cent hotel bed tax. He also predicts that operating costs for a busier convention center wouldn't have to be subsidized by the city as is currently the case.

He has lined up some heavy hitters on his side.

If they and Godbold arrive at Peyton's door at the same time, the mayor will be reaching for the aspirin.

Peyton has said the final decision on a larger convention center should be a community decision.

"I'm not sensing a huge ground swell" for a convention center, Peyton said this week.

If the proposal to expand does become a tidal wave someday, there's one sure way to let the community decide -- put it on the ballot before doing anything.

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Godbold: Preserve the Prime Osborn

Former mayor speaks out about convention center plans, says new site would cost too much.

Proponents of a new convention center have made more than 80 presentations to help stir support. And one very vocal opponent is just getting started making his case.

Former Mayor Jake Godbold told a group of about 20 business people at the Beaches Business Association meeting Monday that he opposes any convention center proposals except those at the Prime Osborn Convention Center. While in office in the 1980s, Godbold led the conversion of the railroad station into a convention center.

"We should preserve what we have," Godbold told the group. "We built a convention center that was the right size for Jacksonville at the time."

Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau Chairman Jack Diamond and President Kitty Ratcliffe are developing plans for a potential new or expanded convention center. The group has not committed to a site. Outside consultants are analyzing a number of locations, including the possible expansion of the Prime Osborn or a riverfront location, and should release their results soon.

Godbold said a new facility would cost too much and the Prime Osborn could be expanded because there is land and infrastructure in place to support it, such as ample parking and the maligned Skyway Express, which he also lobbied for.

"Now Jack Diamond wants to build one on the river, which is the most stupid idea I've heard in my life," Godbold said.

Godbold said the new center would cost too much, the group has budgeted too little space and downtown does not have adequate space available. Additionally, if located on the river, it would take prime space away from taxable facilities that could generate more revenue. He said the idea of a new center is "headed to another courthouse mess."

Ratcliffe said analysis shows the "box" of the building will cost about $95 million, not counting land acquisition, infrastructure and preparation. Godbold told the meeting the total cost will probably be between $300 and $400 million.

He said the duo was "lying and exaggerating about the cost and the needs" for a new center. Godbold made several other personal attacks on the promoters, blaming Ratcliffe for the current shortcomings of the existing convention center and saying the proponents of a new center were "selfish people."

Ratcliffe and Diamond denied Godbold's accusations and questioned his motives, saying he was concerned about his legacy and the business interests of landowners near the Prime Osborn. They also said they've tried to meet with him on about 10 occasions to discuss his concerns and he has refused.

"He's taken sort of dirty counterattack tactics rather than try to work through this with us," Ratcliffe said. "We might not be on opposing sides after all if the [site analysis] proves the Prime Osborn is the best choice."

After the site analysis is complete this fall, Diamond and Ratcliffe said they will have a complete cost and benefit package to present to city officials. They want a plan in place so the facility can be promoted during the Super Bowl.

"This is the first time I've seen him negative about something that is positive for the community," said Diamond, who has worked in the past with Godbold on various other city projects.

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My thoughts on the Godbold story...

I was surprised to see the very strong/insulting langauge in his quotes. I think he went way over the line on this. This is an issue where reasonable and intellegent people can disagree. He should at least listen to the consultant's report before dismissing it out of hand. Also, he appears unwilling to even meet with the CVB folks, which is inexcuseable.

Evidently the CVB is building support for it's plan if he is getting so nervous. This looks like a preemptive strike before the consultant's report comes out.

Like anything else in real estate, location, location, and location are what matter. If the Osborn Center was an obvious "good location", there would be no discussion underway, except how to pay for the expansion. Anyone can see that the Osborn center is isolated.

From what I understand, the Osborn center has never drawn as it was intended, even when it was new, and adjacent hotels were not a "given".

If the city had done a better job with LaVilla, and Brooklyn redevelopment were underway (instead of only in the planning stages), then it might make sense to be patient until development encompasses the center.

There are many more cities with convention centers now than when the Osborn Center opened in 1978. To be competitive, a better location may be not only desireable but NECESSARY. My first choice is the Radisson site, if it is available.

The Chamber and the City are planning a trip to San Diego this year. SD has a huge convention center on the waterfront which will illustrate that Godbold's comments are off-base in terms of location. Obviously, the $300-400 mm figure he is using is ridiculous on it's face.

I think (and hope) that Godbold merely wants to be sure that the Osborn center is not abandoned again. Obviously, he feels it is part of his "legacy". But right now, his legacy is a white elephant I still think the best idea is to move MOSH into the Osborn Center and put the train station back in as well. Cincinnati and Kansas City MO are excellent examples of how this has been done with historic train stations. This would also allow redevelopment of the MOSH site into a mixed use high rise. It could even mesh with potntial plans for the River City Brewing site.

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I'm not fired up either way. I think its best to have a discussion and not use the media to attack. Godbold did a lot for downtown, i've been told, and everyone is entitle to an opinion. I haven't seen an opinion of his I agree with yet. He said in an editorial in the FTU once that Sleiman "saved" the landing by buying it at $5mm. I think if they wanted to they could sell it in a day for a tidy profit. No one I know knew that it was for sale.

Its just too easy to get something in print and not easy enough to straighten things out. I like the idea of a rejuvinated Prime O whether its as a trans hub or convention center with hotel(s). I'm not sure waterfront is the way to go so I guess we do have that in common...

I guess I'm glad the mayor is concentrating on the courthouse...

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"Its just too easy to get something in print and not easy enough to straighten things out."

I remember back when former mayor Delaney and the Construction industry folks were hot at each other over the minority contracting issue, Godbold was brought into the matter to bring the parties together and BRING DOWN the tension level. He certainly isn't doing that on this issue.

I likewise have heard good things about him as mayor, particular in regards to downtown, but his statements in the article strike me as out of character for someone so well-versed in city politics.

I wonder if the reporter caught him off-guard or "on a bad day"?

BTW, the current issue of Jacksonville magazine has a short interview with him. It's on the last page.

I do think he means well, but I also feel Mr. Diamond and Ms. Ratcliffe do as well. I don't know either of them, but I imagine they have spent countless hours of their own time to promote a new or expanded center (the later of which Godbold favors).

Also, I don't think it is a REQUIREMENT that the convention center be ON the water, but it certainly would be a big plus. What I think IS necessary, is that the center be in a BETTER location. Probably no more than a block or two from the water, since that is Downtown's best feature.

To have any chance to make the current site work, a significant investment would have to be made to the surrounding area. More than just adding a hotel. That investment would probably easily exceed the cost of waterfront property. Even then, the center would be limited by the RR tracks immediately south of it, and the "dead zone" created by the Federal Reserve Bank. There wouldn't be any "synergy" between that fortress (Federal Reserve) and whatever is around it.

Baltimore is an excellent example to follow. Their center is only a couple of blocks from the harbor, and it is surrounded on all sides by retail, numerous hotels and restaurants. Light rail passes right by it as well.

Jacksonville has already gotten the location wrong once, it is imperative in my view that they get it right next time. Otherwise, the locals will view a convention center as a boondoggle, as they already do the Skyway (not my opinion, BTW).

A city the size of Jacksonville should have a much larger convention/tourist economy. For Jacksonville and downtown to reach it's full potential, the number and visitors, and the amount they spend, needs to increase. Indy, San Diego and Baltimore are just a few examples of cities that have built up their convention economy with great benefits to their respective downtowns, and the city as a whole.

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Perhaps we'll get to vote on it. I think the city did a fine job of agreeing on the BJP. For as many convention centers that you've enjoyed there are more struggling in downtowns around the country, or so I've been told. I have heard they are struggling to fill the award winning center in Pittsburgh. Does anyone know anything about that facility?

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Convention center debate heats up, study results near

Liz Flaisig

Staff Writer

DOWNTOWN -- It has become a contentious issue among business leaders, spawning emotional exchanges at public meetings and even personal attacks.

But the controversy over expanding Jacksonville's convention center space isn't expected to diminish, particularly with a privately funded study of eight potential sites due in early September.

"If the study comes back and says we're going to be down [at the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center] then we're all on the same team," said Jack Diamond, president of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau. "If not, we're going to have to go from there."

At least until next month, Diamond said he expects to continue hearing business and community leaders questioning city officials' "political will" when it comes to expanding Jacksonville's convention center business.

"We can have this if we simply decide to get into the market," Diamond said.

The decision to "get into the market" might still be debatable to some, but several hotel and restaurant leaders have expressed support for a new structure that would triple the Prime Osborn's existing 78,500 square feet of exhibition space.

Such a building, at a cost of roughly $100 million, would allow Jacksonville to compete for convention center business with cities such as Birmingham, Ala., Tampa and Memphis, Tenn., according to the CVB.

Funding for a new or expanded building could come from the city's Tourist Convention Development tax, Diamond said. The tax is 6 cents on every dollar spent on short-term rental accommodation including hotels.

If the city bonded 4 cents of the tax, it could raise $180 million, Diamond said. Of that, $50 million could be used to pay off existing debt from Alltel Stadium and the Prime Osborn, leaving about $130 million for the convention center project, he said.

The site would eventually include a 500-room hotel, nearby retail and entertainment venues and a 1,500-space parking garage, according to CVB documents.

An expanded convention center could have a total economic impact of up to $1.3 billion annually within 10 years, and a new facility could bring up to $2.4 billion a year, according to CVB studies.

The Prime Osborn's current economic impact is $532 million a year, CVB documents state.

The facility loses $440,000 a year, but an expanded or new center could break even within a few years, Diamond said.

Although supporters say it's hard to argue with such figures, Mayor John Peyton has been careful to maintain an "open-minded" but measured position on a larger convention center by not offering any financial commitment.

Mayor's office spokeswoman Susie Wiles said Peyton's position hasn't changed.

"The mayor has been pretty clear to date on this," Wiles said. "It's a wonderful time to talk about it, explore sites and explore funding. He's waiting for the outcome of the study and site information to decide anything."

With the mayor in a neutral position, the CVB has come under heavy criticism after its participation in the privately funded convention center site study, which cost about $30,000.

Opponents have questioned the validity of the CVB's prior studies and argued that even the discussion of changing convention center sites has driven off developers who might have been interested in Downtown's residential and commercial redevelopment.

And they have rejected sites included in the upcoming study that front the St. Johns River, saying such valuable property should not accommodate tax-exempt government buildings.

But Diamond and CVB President Kitty Ratcliffe tout the upcoming study as independent because the majority of it is paid for by a group of local business leaders.

Diamond, Ratcliffe and other supporters hope that recommendations from the study's author, HOK Group Inc., will help.

HOK has been asked to deliver the study as soon as possible after Sept. 1. The St. Louis-based firm, whose projects include Alltel Stadium and the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, is evaluating eight Downtown sites, including the Prime Osborn.

Though CSX Corp.'s Water Street building is one of the sites, Diamond expects it to "drop out quickly."

"They're in the process of putting a new fa

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I find it interesting that the CSX building was included in the possible sites looked at. It is an ideal location and it is not exactly the nicest looking building in Jax. I haven't seen it since the fascade work was done though. I doubt the site is big enough or that CSX is willing to vacate. Still, at least the study seems to be "looking outside the box" to even include it.

A funding mechanism is in place to do the project without raising taxes. I hope Jax will go forward with this. If the existing center is expanded, I hope they build a hotel to open simultaneously with the expansion.

I can't wait for the study to come out.

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Get the city on track for business

The train has not left the station when it comes to Jacksonville's ability to be a prime convention destination.

A new convention center or an improved Prime Osborn could bolster the city's competitive position.

The 85-year-old converted train station housing the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center lacks the size -- only 78,500 square feet of exhibition space -- and set-up that facilities in competing cities offer. The lack of proximal hotel facilities has also hurt the business.

Jacksonville cannot -- and at this point should not -- compete with Orlando, but we should beat out cities such as Birmingham, Ala.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Memphis, Tenn., because of our location. Unfortunately, Jacksonville has not synthesized its assets -- a good quality of life, pleasant climate, a river and a beach -- into convention magnetism.

A train is only as good as its engine, and if Jacksonville wants to get on track to enticing conventions, supplemental attractions won't pull the load by themselves. It's time to upgrade the engine -- the convention facilities.

In 1988, San Diego was in a similar predicament to Jacksonville. Before playing host to its first Super Bowl that year, convention officials began promoting the expansion of its facilities. After a contentious debate, they got what they wanted the following year -- a 254,000-square-foot exhibition space convention center by, among other things, leaning on descriptive key phrases such as "NFL city," "military presence" and "emerging downtown."

Now these hot phrases are at the forefront of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau's campaign. But it will take more than catchy phrases to be successful.

At the heart of Jacksonville's problem is the discord among those in the business community and the city. While the decision to upgrade, expand or get out has stalled, the existing facilities have deteriorated, making it difficult to attract even small conventions. In order to move beyond hosting events such as family or military reunions, axes need to be buried and decisions need to be made.

A success story such as San Diego's can be repeated. We cannot choose between the renovation or replacement of the city's convention facilities at this point, but we are adamant that the community unites behind whatever decision is made and leave petty squabbles at home.

In order to build this train's momentum, we need everyone on board.

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An excellent editorial, which I agree with completely. The next Chamber sponsored visit is to San Diego. I don't know when, but it should be an impetus for moving forward with a new center. Their center is waterfront BTW.

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I liked all the references to trains in that editorial, lol. At first, I though the article was about converting the center back into a transit hub. But alas, it wasn't...

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Ratcliffe leaving CVB for New Orleans

Kitty Ratcliffe, the president of Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, has resigned to take a job with the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Ratcliffe's resignation is effective Oct. 29. She will take a position as executive vice president at the New Orleans CVB with responsibility for the sale and marketing of meetings and conventions.

The CVB will establish a search committee to look for Ratcliffe's replacement. CVB Chairwoman Margo Dundon said she was saddened to see Ratcliffe leave.

"Kitty has done so much for the hospitality industry in Jacksonville," said Dundon. "It will be difficult to find someone of her caliber. She has set programs in place to carry the industry and community well into the future including taking marketing advantage of the upcoming Super Bowl and creation of training programs for the hospitality industry."

Ratcliffe, who was not immediately available for comment, joined the CVB in July 1997. She has been an advocate for a new convention center for Jacksonville.

This is a setback for the effort to have a convention center plan in place before the Super Bowl. She was a prime mover behind getting a new center built or expanding the existing one. BTW, the study on what would be the best, a new or expanded center, was due out last month. I assumed they postponed release until all the Hurricane news had passed. Hopefully, it will be relaesed soon.

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The Business Journal says the convention center was completed last week, but that the anonymous business leaders that paid for it will not see it until 'this week'. Not much else was stated except that three of the eight sites were ranked close together.

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