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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jan. 26, 201805:34 AM EST

Haskell: What the DIA is seeking for convention center goes too far

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He offers insight from 2011 task force he led on creating a center.
by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

On Jan. 17, the Downtown Investment Authority voted unanimously to solicit bids for the disposition of the former City Hall and Duval County Courthouse for development of a convention center, hotel and parking garage.

For Preston Haskell, founder of The Haskell Co., the possibility of considering a convention center on the site along East Bay Street adjacent to the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront hotel is a case of been there, done that.

Preston Haskell

And it was done seven years ago.

On Feb. 1, 2011, the Jacksonville Civic Council’s Northbank Redevelopment Task Force, chaired by Haskell, delivered its report on the future of the property owned by the city along East Bay Street between Newnan Street and Metropolitan Park. 

In addition to Haskell, the task force comprised Baptist Health System CEO and President Hugh Greene; Steve Halverson, president and CEO of The Haskell Co.; attorneys Robert Rhodes and John Welch; developers Ed Burr, Ben Carter, John Rood and Peter Rummell; architect M. Lynn Pappas; and insurance executive M.C. Harden III.

“We put together a pretty strong committee,” Haskell said last week.

After learning what the DIA seeks in bids for a new convention center, Haskell says they go far beyond what’s needed for success.

The authority is drafting a request for proposals from potential developers to include an exhibition hall of at least 200,000 square feet with a large ballroom and nearly 50 smaller meeting rooms, a 350-room hotel to augment the 951 rooms at the Hyatt, a 1,700-space parking garage with 1,300 spaces reserved for convention center visitors, a full-service restaurant and other retail space along East Bay Street.

While he views the latest convention center discussion as “very positive,” Haskell said he stands by the findings in the 2011 analysis — that the city should focus its development efforts solely on the exhibit space.

The only element needed is a large exhibition hall, Haskell said. “And the hotel would be a huge mistake.”

“We strongly recommend that the city take advantage of the Hyatt,” he said. “It has the meeting rooms and food service. Everything other than a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall is already there.”

The 2011 report suggested adding a 350-space parking garage to the convention center plan, but the scope of the current proposal is much larger.

“It’s absurd to build 1,700 parking spaces. The kind of conventioneers we want won’t drive here and the Hyatt has adequate parking,” Haskell said.

The 2011 report did not address funding construction of the exhibit hall, other than to point out it would be “largely or entirely a public expenditure,” but it did suggest possible sources of funds other than the existing 6 percent “bed tax” that is collected on hotel room bills

The report said the city could seek statutory authority from the state to designate a Tourism Investment District that would encompass all of Duval County and impose an additional tax on a portion of hotel and hospitality revenues.

Another suggestion is to legislate a Utility Revenues Finance District.

A formula would be established under which a portion of revenue from JEA’s Downtown customers would flow into a restricted fund that would be managed by the Downtown Investment Authority for capital projects in the urban core.

Such investments could be made directly from the revenue or bonded for a large-scale project.

Haskell said since the authors of the task force recommendations remain available and engaged in Downtown, “we could certainly dust it off. I think the report is still valid.”

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