No Vacancy

County leaders hope plans are finally coming together for an expanded convention center – and that long-sought hotel.

By: 

Mike Seemuth

Published date: 

Apr. 1, 2017

Efforts to get a new hotel built next to the Broward County Convention Center grind on. What seems like a no-brainer real estate development, building a hotel next door to a convention venue, has been a non-starter in Fort Lauderdale ever since Broward opened its convention center in Fort Lauderdale, just south of the 17th Street Causeway, in 1991.

The convention hotel plan has defied development due to economic recessions, financing issues and resistance from existing hoteliers, among other obstacles that have popped up over the years. Matthews Southwest Holdings is the latest in a series of developers to try to build a hotel on county-owned land next to the convention center, which is located on the northern end of Port Everglades. Lewisville, Texas-based Matthews Southwest outlasted about a half-dozen other developers that county officials considered to handle both an expansion of the Broward convention center and the construction of an adjacent hotel, which Matthews would own.

“I would anticipate construction commencing in 2018,” says Dave Snow, vice president of real estate at Matthews. “Currently, we’re in the design phase for the hotel and the convention center expansion … We’re excited about the project. We think it’ll be successful. We wouldn’t be at it the past two years if we didn’t believe that.”

Matthews, of course, isn’t the first believer in Broward’s convention hotel project.

“This is the fourth attempt by the county to get a hotel on the property,” says Alan Cohen, an assistant county manager and Broward’s point man on the project. “There’s cautious optimism because of past failures as the board of county commissioners move forward with the project. The board is hopeful this time we’ll make it happen.”

Cohen says the first attempt by the county to get a new hotel built next to the convention center happened in the mid-1990s. The county granted a developer a 99-year ground lease for a four-acre property along the north side of the convention center now known as the Portside Yachting Center. The developer failed to break ground for a hotel and sold the ground lease to another individual, who recently sold the leasehold interest back to the county.

The current phase of the project is “conceptual design reconciliation,” Cohen says. Matthews proposed a conceptual design, he says, and “the board voted to move forward with the developer, but to go back and do a redesign with them.”

Demolition would precede construction: The Portside Yachting Center and part of the northern end of the convention center along 17th Street would also be demolished to make way for the convention hotel. Just east of the convention center, an underutilized marine terminal that belongs to Port Everglades would be demolished along with part of a port parking facility, called the Northport Garage.

That demolition work would clear a waterfront space for the expansion of the convention center. In addition, “the view from the existing convention center will be opened up” when the terminal building no longer blocks the waterfront view of the Stranahan River, Cohen says.

The expansion of the convention center would boost its size from about 600,000 square feet to just over a million square feet.

A convention center hotel has proved controversial in some quarters, and Fort Lauderdale has changed dramatically since a plan was first put forward in the ’90s. In years past, owners of existing hotels have criticized the idea of paying a higher bed tax to support a hotel next to the convention center. An even bigger obstacle to building a hotel beside the convention center may be the sheer growth of Fort Lauderdale’s hotel industry. While the county has spent decades trying to get a convention hotel built, the city has gained a slew of new hotel rooms, mainly on the beach, within easy driving distance of the convention center. A number of new downtown hotels are also either in the planning stages or being built. “Within five miles, there are thousands of hotel rooms that adequately serve the port and the convention center,” says Scott Berman, Miami-based industry leader and principal of the hospitality and leisure group at accounting and professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Beyond that, devils likely lurk in the financial details. To raise funds for the project, county commissioners may raise Broward’s bed tax from its current level of 5 cents on every dollar of hotel-room revenue. “It’s something to be discussed,” Cohen says. “Most of our peers around the state are already at 6 cents,” the maximum allowed by state law.

That hike would come in handy. Citing initial cost estimates, Cohen says the convention center expansion would cost about $225 million and the hotel development more than $300 million.

“So, this is potentially a $550 million or $600 million project,” Cohen says. “It’s a very complex project. We’re attaching new buildings to old buildings. Not just the hotel and convention center; the convention center expansion will be attached to the existing convention center.