Curry questions Downtown convention center costs, timing

Mayor suggests in a letter to DIA that Jacksonville may not be ready for the project.

  • By
  • | 8:04 a.m. November 15, 2018
  • Government
  • Share

Mayor Lenny Curry says in a letter that he is concerned about the timing and financial requirements of a new Downtown convention center.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Downtown Investment Authority Chairman Jim Bailey, Curry asked the DIA to prioritize other projects to develop more amenities in Downtown before embarking on what could be one of the most expensive projects for the city to date.

“The timeline for development and the substantial investment of public dollars would represent a dramatic shift in our capacity to participate in other pending public/private partnerships,” he wrote.

Curry cited a 2017 convention center feasibility study that indicated building a new convention center may not be financially sustainable in Jacksonville.

The study suggests that convention planners don’t believe Downtown has developed enough amenities or hotel space to accommodate large groups, compared to other cities in the region.

He said the study raised important questions about the cost, size, location and timing of a new facility.

“While the study was comprehensive, it did not entirely address these questions,” he wrote.

Curry said if the city “diverts such considerable resources away from other developments for a convention center, we will still be lacking the additional lifestyle and entertainment that ultimately would ensure its success.”

The letter comes two months after the DIA received formal bids to build a convention center and hotel complex at the site of the former Duval County Courthouse and City Hall Annex buildings along East Bay Street. The buildings are being demolished to prepare the land for potential development.

Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan has proposed building a convention center in Metropolitan Park.
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan has proposed building a convention center in Metropolitan Park.

Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan has proposed building a convention center in Metropolitan Park as part of his $2.5 billion vision for the Downtown Northbank.

Through Iguana Investments Florida LLC, Khan has rights to develop the property, according to a 2017 agreement with the city.

While construction along East Bay Street could happen as soon as 2019, Khan’s plan could be three to five years out given challenges with the riverfront property.

The city still needs to remove a section of elevated highway ramps connected to the Hart Bridge Expressway which bisects the stadium complex and the riverfront. That project could start late next year and take at least 18 months to complete.

There also are questions about contamination of land along the Downtown Northbank. The area had been a working shipyard.

Khan and Iguana President Mark Lamping have stated the group will instead focus on building the first phase of the master plan on the parking lots west of TIAA Bank Field, specifically parking Lot J.

That includes an office tower, hotel, an entertainment complex, dining and retail.

Khan’s convention center would be a partnership between Iguana and the Rimrock Devlin DeBartolo LLC development group.

Over the summer, the groups submitted the convention center plans for Metropolitan Park to the DIA as well as another unsolicited proposal to develop the East Bay Street site into apartments, a food hall and a new hotel.

By September, the DIA received three official responses to a request for proposals for a convention center on the East Bay Street property. Jacobs Engineering Group’s estimated $598 million proposal scored the highest.

Bailey said the board would work with Curry’s office to decide what to do next.

“As we discussed in our recent meeting, the proposals were thorough, impressive and based on your grading process they were ranked,” Curry wrote. “Another thing the process revealed though, was that these developments are daunting.”

Curry said he wants the board to contemplate his concerns over feasibility and the potential financial burden to taxpayers and “revisit” a convention center in the future, while focusing on more “near-term opportunities.”

Bailey told the board Wednesday he expects those conversations with Curry and his executive staff to continue.