Proposed convention center will need public investment

Mitch Glaeser, left, and John Carlson, right, pose for a photo during the 2014 Annual Meeting at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center on Thursday, January 30, 2014.

Gainesville Magazine
Published: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 5:26 p.m.

Mitch Glaeser mentioned the need for a larger convention center in Gainesville at last year's annual meeting of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

At this year's meeting on Jan. 30, Glaeser — in his second year as chairman — and CEO Tim Giuliani announced that a developer is interested in pursuing plans to build a 52,000-square-foot convention center in the West 38 development just west of the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center.

In between, chamber officials say they had to convince the developer, NP International of Minnesota, that there is enough demand for a larger convention center.

Now they have to persuade the community and elected officials to make a public investment in the center for the developer to move forward.

Brent Reynolds, managing partner of NP International, said he is not yet ready to say what that public investment could entail as the developer works out the details with city and county officials. However, bed tax money charged on hotel room bills is a likely source of money the developer could seek, possibly combined with other incentives.

With a commitment for a public investment, Reynolds said he could move forward with a more detailed design that would require approval from the city in a public hearing.

The chamber has formed what it is calling the Convention Champions Group with more than 15 people from business and academia who have an interest in the center. It is chaired by Eric Godet of Godet Industries International and a former chamber chairman.

The group will identify the types of conferences the center could bring, advocate for the facility and advise the developer, said coordinator Adrian Taylor, vice president of Innovation Gainesville and regional initiatives for the chamber.

“We have to have discussions and work out the public-private partnership,” Taylor said. “We wouldn't want him (the developer) to do it alone. This has to be a community asset.”

Taylor said a 2010 proposal by the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency seeking developers to build a hotel and conference center on a city-owned parking lot on Southwest First Avenue is probably a good baseline for how a public-private partnership could work.

At the time, the County Commission was asking for proposals of as much as $7 million in case commissioners decided to levy an additional 1-2 percent tourist development tax — or bed tax — on top of the existing 3 percent tax.

Two firms responded, but city commissioners balked at the incentive package each was seeking from the city.

Taylor said the West 38 convention center would not preclude the need for another hotel and meeting space downtown and actually could bolster business downtown and throughout the region by bringing in more conventions and conferences.

At 52,000 square feet, the center also would be larger than what would fit on the downtown parking lot, he said.

Glaeser said the biggest difference between this and past proposals is that now a developer with a considerable investment in its property is ready to go.

NP International has started construction on West 38 with land cleared, and stormwater and road work underway, including the Hull Road extension. Campus Crest Communities of Charlotte, N.C., has started building The Grove student apartments consisting of three four-story buildings with 253 units and 676 bedrooms.

Plans also call for retail and office buildings, and construction of a 130-room hotel will start in August, Reynolds said.

The convention center would connect to the hotel.

Reynolds said that when he first met with chamber officials nine months ago he had reservations about how much demand Gainesville has for a larger convention center but was convinced over the course of several meetings with people in the public and private sector.

Much of the work was done by a consultant hired by the CRA for its 2010 downtown proposal.

Global Spectrum determined that Gainesville was missing out on more than 65,000 hotel room nights and 130 meetings lost to cities with larger facilities.

The 2009 report says the largest current meeting space, the Hilton UF Conference Center, can accommodate events of as many as 350 people. UF alone has about 70 meeting planners who plan 125 to 150 meetings a year, 50 of which average more than 500 attendees and are referred to venues in Tallahassee, Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando.

Capturing 50 conferences with an average of 450 attendees spending $1,000 each would result in a $22.5 million boost to the local economy, the report says.

“Hopefully, something like that happens so it does change what we can go try to attract,” said John Pricher, interim director of Visit Gainesville. “By not having really functional space in that category, we can't really expand what we'd try to bring to the community.”

Reynolds said events would not be constrained to the building. Outside space could be used for events such as concerts.

The nearly 75-acre property includes 40 acres donated to the city for conservation land. Plans call for the Archer Braid Trail to extend through the development.

West 38 replaces the previous Creekside at Beville Run project that had been planned in the urban village land use envisioned as dense urban infill in meetings 15 years ago among Alachua County, the city of Gainesville and University of Florida officials. Creekside was abandoned during the recession.

Garrison Investment Group of New York City bought the property from the original developer in 2011 and hired NP International to develop the property.

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