A Cheap Solution To Jax's Convention Center Problem?

December 11, 2014 264 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Investing in a new convention center is an issue that has been debated in Jacksonville for over a decade now. Looking back, the Civic Council may have provided an affordable "no-frills" solution that may be worth dusting off and revisiting.

For years, the Jacksonville & the Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau has lobbied for a new convention center to be built in downtown Jacksonville. Losing several growing conventions to more modern centers in other cities, the belief has been that a larger center would draw more tourist to the area and help revitalize downtown. As far back as 2001, one study suggested that a new convention center featuring 150,000 square feet of exhibition space, with an attached hotel, would generate $2.4 billion in economic impact over a 30 year period.

Others disagree with the idea of spending large sums of public money on an expanded convention center. As far back as 13 years ago, Mayor John Delaney suggested the push was nothing more than a vanity trip. In an interview to the Jacksonville Business Journal, Delaney was quoted as saying, "There's an element of keeping up with the Joneses that we need to be careful to avoid." The concern is valid considering the actual number of conventions hosted in the U.S. has declined since the mid-1990's, despite the amount of convention space doubling during the same time frame. Furthermore, most convention centers also tend to be big, single-use boxes that are void of stimulating everyday activity and street life. The Prime Osborn Convention Center being a perfect example of this situation.

The Jacksonville Terminal was once that largest train station in the country south of Washington, DC. Removing the convention center from the historic complex would allow it to be converted back into an intermodal transit hub.

However, in Jacksonville's case, the need for a convention center upgrade isn't about competing for conventions with cities such as Orlando, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Chicago. Instead, reasons to properly address the convention center dilemma include the need to convert downtown's historic train station back to its original use, keeping and growing events already utilizing the Prime Osborn, and the revitalization of the Northbank core by clustering complementing uses within a compact pedestrian scale setting. If these needs are truly considered, perhaps Jacksonville's ultimate answer to the decades old convention center debate is a solution that falls somewhere in the middle of the opposing arguments. In fact, it may be a suggestion we all overlooked a few years ago.

In February 2011, the Jacksonville Civic Council released their Northbank Redevelopment Task Force Final Report. The construction of a new convention center adjacent to the Hyatt Hotel was major recommendation. The plan was quickly ridiculed with negative sentiment when downtown advocates realized it also called for the replacement of the historic Hermiker block with a parking garage. With that in mind, advocates may have overlooked a pretty logical solution to Jacksonville's convention center issue.

2014 APA Florida Annual Conference in the Hyatt's ballroom.

What the Civic Council actually proposed was the addition of an 80,000 square foot exhibition hall and 40,000 square feet of flex-space to the Hyatt's existing 90,000 square feet of meeting space. As a result, Jacksonville would have a convention center that would be more than double the size of the Prime Osborn with 966 hotel rooms above it and a vibrant dining and entertainment district at street level. This addition to the Hyatt's existing meeting rooms would more than double the size of the Prime Osborn, enabling Jacksonville to convert to old railroad terminal back to its original use.

Furthermore, the addition would be mixed used. The exhibition hall would be and extension of the Hyatt's second floor ballroom level, creating a full block of street level retail, dining, and entertainment space along Bay Street, effectively bridging the gap between the Northstar Pizza and Olio Market blocks. At the time, it was the hope of the Civic Council that such a project could have been completed by 2015.

If one would like to get an idea of potential capital costs, look no further than the new $45 million, 170,000 square foot Owensboro Convention Center in Owensboro, KY. Overlooking the Ohio River, the two-level structure, featuring 44,000 square feet of exhibition space, was built for roughly $265/square foot.  Using that number as a barometer, that would put the potential cost of a two-level, 160,000 square foot Hyatt addition around $42 million.  

To apply this number to Jacksonville's understanding, that's roughly $21 million less than the pools and scoreboards in Everbank Field and $1 million less than the new Kernan Boulevard overpass over Beach Boulevard. For a cost in that ballpark, multiple downtown birds could be killed with one stone.

1. A modern, riverfront convention center is added in the heart of downtown by expanding an existing facility.

2. The new mixed-use exhibition hall would add a full block of additional retail, dining, and entertainment on East Bay Street in the heart of the popular "Elbow" district.

3. The Prime Osborn could then be shut down, allowing Jacksonville the opportunity to return the grand Jacksonville Terminal back to its former glory, opening the door adjacent transit oriented development.

The plan isn't without its negatives though. For such an expansion to happen, the 19-story, soon to be abandoned, City Hall Annex building would have to be demolished.

Next Page: Explaining The Solution Through Graphics and Imagery

 1 2 NEXT