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Convention Center: Who will take up the cause?

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By CHRISTOPHER CALNAN

The Times-Union

The seven-year president of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau is stepping down this month, but the push for a new convention center may benefit from the change.

The CVB's new chairwoman, Margo Dundon, said replacing the initiative's point person, outgoing President Kitty Ratcliffe, with a more inclusive group of advocates could add credibility to the cause and make it appear less self-serving.

"It's important for this issue to rest on more than one person's head," Dundon said. "It strikes a very different note, and one that's listened to, when a broad segment of the community speaks to the issue."

Ratcliffe, who is taking a job with the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau next month, and former CVB Chairman Jack Diamond have proposed replacing the Prime Osborn Convention Center, a renovated train terminal that re-opened in 1986, with a facility three times bigger.

Ratcliffe, long an outspoken advocate of a larger convention center, has said Jacksonville's lack of one was a factor in her decision to take the New Orleans position.

Diamond turned over the chairmanship to Dundon earlier this month during the CVB's annual luncheon.

The event featured a video with various public officials thanking Diamond for his time as chairman followed by CVB staff members parading single-file into a hotel function room carrying bobble-head dolls in Diamond's likeness.

Diamond will remain on the CVB's 22-person board.

"I'm still acting as the point person until this is done," he said this week. "We're continuing to push for a convention center until we get one."

City Councilman Lad Daniels said Dundon has a good idea about making the group advocating the new convention center more inclusive. Building a consensus opinion to build a center would be better than issuing a directive, he said.

The city needs a convention center, he said. It's just unclear whether it should be newly built of be part of an expanded Prime Osborn. Such a facility would finally give Jacksonville an identity as one of Florida's convention locations.

"Right now, we're neither fish nor fowl," Daniels said. "We ain't even in the game."

Construction estimates for a new convention center range from $100 million to $300 million.

Susie Wiles, spokeswoman for Mayor John Peyton, said a municipal bond and increased bed tax money would be the two most obvious means of paying for such a project. However, a new convention center isn't being considered yet, so a funding source isn't either, she said.

"We are many, many steps away from that kind of decision," Wiles said. "The community has other pressing priorities right now."

Daniels, past chairman of the Tourist and Development Commission, said no move should be made to build a convention center without first securing a deal with a major hotel chain to build next to the facility.

"Without the hotel," he said, "this thing's dead in the water."

Councilwoman Elaine Brown, TDC chairwoman, agreed.

"You've got to have the hotel attached to, or across the street" from the convention center, she said.

However, an even larger issue of whether the city wants to compete with other convention cities has to be resolved, Brown said.

"The argument that has to be made is that we are indeed a convention city," she said. "I'm not convinced that we are."

Diamond said the push to get convention business in Jacksonville will continue regardless.

"While we're here doing nothing, every other city is going out getting it," he said.

Diamond and Ratcliffe have lobbied for a convention center with 200,000 square feet to 250,000 square feet of exhibit space. Prime Osborn has 265,000 square feet of total space, but only 78,500 square feet is exhibit space, Ratcliffe said.

A group of private investors have paid for a study of potential site locations for a convention center. However, Diamond said he hasn't decided if the study will be released to the public.

christopher.calnanjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4404

This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stor..._16982106.shtml.

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Ratcliffe urges city to commit to larger center

Kitty Ratcliffe has just seven days to go as president of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, but she isn't going quietly.

Ratcliffe wants the city to know that a "big box convention center" is critical to the city. She defines "big box" as about 475,000 square feet of exhibit, ballroom, meeting and support space, more than twice the size of the Prime Osborn Convention Center, which is among sites under review for the project.

"It can have a significant difference on the health of the community and the vibrancy of the downtown area," Ratcliffe said in a recent interview in the bureau's conference room on the 10th floor of 550 Water St.

"We need this issue to be discussed," she said.

Ratcliffe and former CVB Chairman Jack Diamond made more than 80 speeches around town to pitch the need for a larger center. She said basic construction for a new center would cost at least $100 million, not counting land costs.

She also knows that former Mayor Jake Godbold, a staunch supporter of the Prime Osborn, is no fan of hers. Godbold took to his own speaking circuit this summer to to say that a new center would cost up to $400 million and was not needed. He advocates that the only site to consider is the Prime Osborn.

The Prime Osborn is 265,000 square feet, according to its Web site.

Advocates for a larger convention center hired the HOK consulting firm to evaluate sites. Ratcliffe said eight locations are ranked and "there is a clear distinction between three and the other five." She said past CVB Chairman Jack Diamond would lead the charge and set up meetings with Mayor John Peyton and City Council leaders before making the findings public.

The Prime Osborn site in the LaVilla area of downtown is one of the eight downtown sites evaluated, but Ratcliffe declined to discuss the rankings.

During their speeches, Ratcliffe and Diamond said that the Prime Osborn, at its current size, can compete for just 4 percent to 5 percent of the nation's convention business, while the larger center could compete for about 80 percent. She said that meeting planners "take one look at the convention center and the area it's in and they walk away."

The two further said that a larger center could create at least 2,000 jobs and could be financed with part of the 6-cent bed tax charged visitors that already is designated for the convention center.

Ratcliffe contends that city leaders realize a larger center is needed and that it will cost money, but "they are bogged down in the ridiculousness that is the courthouse."

Ratcliffe, 46, leaves the CVB after seven years to become executive vice president Nov. 1 of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. She expects to visit Jacksonville for the Feb. 6 Super Bowl game at Alltel Stadium.

As she leaves, she urges the city to commit to an expanded center and announce it Super Bowl week.

"The opportunity is one you cannot lose," she said, explaining that up to 500 chief executive officers will be visiting Jacksonville for the game. She said that 3,000 reporters will be in town "looking for something to write" and an announcement with renderings would generate an "incredible amount of hype."

The city "should be doing a major PR campaign that week," she said. "We'll never have that opportunity again."

karen.mathisjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4305

This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stor..._16982089.shtml.

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I'm glad they're speaking out for a new center, but I doubt they'll get the necessary funding anytime soon.

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That is the first step toward a new convention center. It is great that she is getting it out in public. What a great way to go out too!

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Convention center not a priority for Peyton

Mayor John Peyton said that architect Jack Diamond, the head cheerleader for a larger Jacksonville convention center, "worked everybody else into a lather" during the San Diego leadership trip in October.

That's not difficult to imagine, considering Diamond once called Rotary Club of Jacksonville members "bobbleheads" for their energetic nodding in agreement with his reasoning for a larger convention center.

Peyton intends to continue keeping his cool, however, as Diamond and other advocates boast that Jacksonville can benefit from the business potential of a larger center, like San Diego did.

"I don't think the politics are right," Peyton told a group of Times-Union editors and reporters during a recent meeting.

Those politics definitely aren't right for Peyton, at least for the moment.

The day before the Times-Union meeting, Peyton halted development plans for the Duval County Courthouse as projected costs reached $300 million. Taxpayers are out at least $27 million. The mayor intends to start over.

Peyton also is negotiating with developer Ed Burr to take over The Shipyards, the projected $860 million downtown project, whose former developer spent $36.5 million in taxpayer money with little to show at the site. The riverfront project was envisioned as a residential, retail, hotel, office and marina.

Peyton inherited both deals. Until Peyton can correct those deals, it's doubtful he would want to take on another one.

When Peyton mentions politics, he's keeping in mind that a larger convention center would cost more than $100 million and could reach $400 million, depending on who's talking.

"I certainly think we should have a convention center dialogue," Peyton said, but there are two major sticking points: finances and debt.

While supporters of a larger center claim that part of the city's 6-cent bed tax could finance the project, Peyton said "that has not been proven on paper." He also said the city already has a lot of debt, and he doesn't consider it time to add more.

"Let's get Better Jacksonville Plan" projects completed, he said. The courthouse was one of the capital projects in the $2.2 billion plan approved by voters under the Delaney administration.

A larger convention center was not in that plan, so advocates took matters into their own hands. A privately funded consultant ranked eight downtown sites for their ability to accommodate a 475,000-square-foot convention center, parking and possibly an on-site hotel.

We understand that six of the sites are the JEA and Radisson Riverwalk properties on the Southbank; the Fairgrounds, City Hall Annex and eastern side of The Shipyards on the Northbank; and the existing 265,000-square-foot Prime Osborn Convention Center in LaVilla on the Northbank.

Peyton also doesn't intend to push toward an announcement during Super Bowl week in February that Jacksonville plans a new center. Kitty Ratcliffe, former president of the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, said before she left that the city should announce intentions for a larger center that week, considering the hype it would generate.

Peyton isn't worked up about that, either. "There is absolutely no connection ... with our decision to build a convention center and the Super Bowl," Peyton said.

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I kinda agree that we should substantially finish the rest of the BJP stuff before breaking ground on a new Convention Center. But now is still the time to plan, and I support those endeavors. They need to get stuff on paper, not just have ideas floating around. I think we'll definitely see progress within the next 5-10 years, depending on our city leadership.

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