BY BUDDY NEVINS
“We have already turned the 17th Causeway into one of the county’s largest parking lots. The traffic is strangling us,” said Sol Lesser a resident at the waterfront Port of Americas condominium.
It could have been said today, but Lesser was talking to the Sun-Sentinel in 1987 — 30 years ago!
Lesser was quoted about the Broward County Commission decision to build a convention center wedged between the northern edge of Port Everglades and the already-overcrowded causeway.
It was a decision fueled by political expediency at the expense of good planning.
Almost nothing is more illustrative of how dysfunctional the Broward County Commission has been over the last four decades than the struggle over the convention center complex. Since about 1980, Broward County’s government realized the tourism industry needed a convention center coupled with a hotel. Roughly a half dozen different locations were proposed in the 1980s and agreements collapsed because of political wrangling.
In 1987, commissioners finally got it together and made a decision. The wrong one.
Former tourism and convention center director Nicki Grossman was on the County Commission in the 1980s. She initially favored a site near the current Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
“It had plenty of room to grow,” Grossman recalls.
A new convention campus would have rehabilitated a shabby swath of the county with new hotels and restaurants augmenting the center. The area had far fewer traffic problems and was close to Florida’s Turnpike and Interstate 595.
Then Broward’s political reality intervened.
“The east side hotels wanted the project on the east side,” Grossman says.
By east side, Grossman means Fort Lauderdale. Any other location including Hollywood, Deerfield Beach or Davie that made more sense didn’t have enough political pull.
There were two sites considered in Fort Lauderdale.
Pavarini Construction wanted to build the $50 million project at Birch Road and Las Olas Boulevard on the beach.
Investors Edward Deutsch and Thomas Ireland wanted it at the north end of Port Everglades dubbed Northport. That is where the exhibit hall eventually landed.
The fight between the two sides generated the most intense lobbying commissioners and the public had ever seen.
“You could call almost anytime and there’d be someone sitting here lobbying me,” Grossman told the Miami Herald at the time. “I would say lobbying on this comes second only to…..No, I don’t think it comes second to anything. This is the most intensely lobbied project I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible.”
Pavarini hired former County Commissioner Hugh Anderson and Robert Huebner, along with lobbyists George Allen and Joel Gustafson to peddle his project.
Northport’s team was headed by former County Commissioner George Platt, who was at the height of his lobbying prowess. Platt knew how to turn a business decision into a question of politics.
Pavarini’s lobbying team and supporters like the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce and the downtown business community were mostly Republicans.
Platt was chair of the Broward Democratic Party at the time. He knew that Republican money didn’t count as much as the promise of Democratic votes when six of the seven commissioners were Democrats. So Platt wisely snared the endorsements that counted to any Democrat hoping for a long career in elective office – labor unions, condominium association leaders and party activists.
Pavarini’s backers had money and business types. Platt’s Northport team had votes, thousands of them.
It is no surprise that potential votes in the next election trumped any other consideration.
Only Republican Commissioner Ed Kennedy and Howard Craft, a Democrat, backed Pavarini’s beach site. Two months after the vote, Craft announced he was not running for re-election and quickly faded from Broward politics.
Broward County Commission Failures
The convention center decision was pegged on two assumptions:
- Northport developers promised to build a hotel at the site.
- Commissioners believed there was a good chance that a tunnel under the Intracoastal Waterway would replace the 17th Street bridge to alleviate traffic on the causeway.
The tunnel never got built. The developer broke his promise to build the hotel.
Grossman is still upset.
“I couldn’t go in the same room as (developer) Tom Ireland. After the public money was spent, the two 500-room towers never got built,” she remembers.
Even after Ireland and the other original owners left the picture, future County Commissions couldn’t get the hotel project off the ground.
There were hundreds of hours proposing and promising. There were decades full of PowerPoint presentations.
The results of all this talk was….nothing.
A New Hotel?
The latest crop of Commissioners believes they are finally moving towards construction of a convention hotel. They have a Texas firm designing plans. They want to sign a deal and start building next year.
The opening of the $500 million expansion of the exhibit hall and a new 800-room hotel is scheduled for 2021. If everything goes according to plans.
Yet significant snags remain.
How to accommodate security concerns at Port Everglades is a big, big issue. Finding space for parking is another obstacle.
Traffic remains the big issue. The question of how to fit traffic generated by a larger convention center – everybody won’t fit in the new hotel – on already overtaxed streets is unresolved.
Hovering in the background is another complication. A nascent grassroots campaign among Fort Lauderdale residents wants to move the convention center to somewhere else.
All that money — $500 million — could go a long way towards relocating the center near expressways, perhaps on future transit routes and away from 17th Street.
Moving the convention center away from Port Everglades would free up roadways for the traffic generated by the new, larger cruise ship and increased cargo.
Moving the center, however, would cost the center its gorgeous view of the seaport.
And also its view of Fort Lauderdale’s sewage plant.
And of dozens of oil tanks.
And of 17th Street jammed packed with cars waiting for the bridge.
Supporters of the center’s current location say the poor decision was made years ago.
It is too late and too expensive to change now, they say.
That train left the station.
The location of the convention center is water under the bridge.
Or more appropriate in Fort Lauderdale, water over the sea wall.
Should the county spend $500 million for a waterfront structure in a city that is already experiencing increasing street flooding?
That is another question entirely. And that’s a question that hasn’t been asked enough.
Fanciful rendering distributed earlier this month of the new, expanded convention center. The 17th Causeway hasn’t had that little traffic for generations (Click to enlarge):