2. Take advantage of what we already have
Downtown Jacksonville’s Hyatt was completed in 2001 for $126 million and $23 million in tax incentives. It was intended to serve as the city’s convention center hotel.
In 2001, the $126 million Adams Mark and its 951-rooms opened its doors as downtown’s convention center hotel. Now the Hyatt, it required $23 million in public subsidies to come to fruition. It contains 116,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 28,984-square-foot ballroom, 21,120 square feet of outdoor river decks, 30 meeting rooms and 8 conference suites. It’s twice the size of the Palm Beach County Convention Center’s hotel. It’s also not operating at maximum capacity.
Since the Better Jacksonville Plan 18 years ago, the common reasons for possibly replacing the Prime Osborn Convention Center have revolved around it being in a location on the edge of downtown that is drastically removed from the action (ex. there’s nothing to do nearby), having an exhibition hall that’s too small (78,500-square-feet) and not having adjacent hotel rooms to support the needs of larger destination-style conventions. If these are the issues that negatively impact the potential of the Prime Osborn, there are multiple ways to address them.
This could involve either expand the Prime Osborn’s exhibition hall and subsidizing the development of a new hotel and things to do in LaVilla, or building an exhibition hall adjacent to the Hyatt. This would mean that taxpayers wouldn’t have to fund another $100-million plus convention center hotel or subsidize hundreds of millions for additional retail, restaurants, bars and entertainment uses within walking distance. A third option is likely the most expensive and counterproductive to downtown revitalization. That is to invest in the development of a completely new everything. However, the recent RFP did just that.
When Jacksonville does decide to truly address the future of the convention center, surrounding context and previous subsidized investments need to seriously be considered into the decision making process. If that process is to include the former county courthouse and city hall annex site, minimum design criteria should consider that a $126-million, 951-room hotel, 28,984-square-foot ballroom, 30 meeting rooms and 8 conference suites already exist for that specific site. Take advantage of what we already have and resolve the remaining problem the Prime Osborn has. That problem is the city’s need for a larger exhibition hall. Judging from the Palm Beach County experience this city would be fine with an exhibition hall that’s half the size of what was being considered for the courthouse site and suggested for the Shipyards.
The Palm Beach County Convention Center’s 400-room Hilton West Palm Beach opened in 2016 at the cost of $110 million. The DIA’s recent convention center RFP included a 350-room full service hotel be included in the scope despite the $126 million, 951-room Hyatt already existing and another 800 hotel rooms already proposed for the Northbank. Not subsidizing another full service hotel is something that should be explored with any site that has the potential to be directly connected to the Hyatt hotel.
The last thing we need to do in downtown is subsidize the construction of a convention center hotel. Seriously consider alternatives that include what taxpayers have already subsidized to scale down the project design criteria and overall cost. Such a modification of needs would be a lot cheaper than subsidizing another $100 million plus convention center hotel in a market that has not demonstrated that it can support two of them.
Without worrying about subsidizing additional hotel space, reducing the size of an exhibition hall by fifty percent and taking advantage of existing ballroom and meeting room space, the city’s convention center issue could be resolved for decades at a fraction of the costs associated with the recent RFP process.