A consulting firm will be paid $125,000 to study how to expand and improve the convention center, which is expected to be a major economic engine during the coming decade.
How should the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach grow?
Should it add another hotel? Build more convention center space?
And should it feature a skybridge crossing Okeechobee Boulevard, north to Rosemary Square and the Kravis Center?
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These are among the questions a consulting firm will explore.
Last month, the Palm Beach County Commission chose Conventions, Sports and Leisure International to chart the future course of the convention center and the surrounding area, known as the convention center district. The convention center is at 650 Okeechobee Blvd., on the south side of the road.
The study is a move toward completing the convention center campus, which is expected to grow in prominence as an engine of economic development during the next 10 to 15 years.
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CSL of Plano, Texas, has done work across the country, including the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, to plan expansion and improvements to the Miami Beach Convention Center. CSL also has done work for other major convention centers, including in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New Orleans.
The $125,000 Palm Beach County study, financed with tourism taxes, is being done at the behest of the county’s Tourist Development Council and Discover The Palm Beaches, the county’s tourism marketing arm.
Talk of adding to the convention center hotel has been ongoing for a while, even when Related Cos. first opened the 400-room Hilton Hotel in 2016.
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But the expansion plan reflects growing interest by meeting planners in Palm Beach County, tourism officials have said. They want more hotel rooms near the convention center so they can book larger events. Last year saw the highest convention booking, with 231,000 nights booked for hotel rooms.
A study recently completed by HVS, a hospitality consulting firm, said the convention center could use another 600 hotel rooms immediately, within a half mile of the convention center.
Palm Beach County long has planned for the growth of its convention center.
A surface parking lot behind the center is available, which could allow exhibition and ballroom space to double, if necessary. The county has built a garage with 2,600 spots, enough to accommodate an expanded center.
The expansion could be anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 square feet, tourism officials have said. It's not clear how much an expansion could cost, especially since the price tag depends on what CSL recommend in terms of size and amenities.
But with the convention center attracting more events, thoughts now turn not only toward adding another hotel, but also toward logistics.
In particular, should something be built to help pedestrians cross Okeechobee Boulevard?
On the north side of Okeechobee Boulevard, both Rosemary Square (formerly CityPlace) and the Kravis Center are undergoing renovations and additions designed to update the properties.
The Kravis is in the midst of an expansion, including a larger Dreyfoos Hall Lobby. Rosemary Square is bringing new eateries and building 360 Rosemary, an office tower that will bring hundreds more workers to the center.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the roadway sits the recently-built Restoration Hardware gallery. The store’s floors of furnishings and popular rooftop restaurant and bar draw people to the Okeechobee Boulevard median.
All that adds up to an increasingly busy concentration of office, retail and hospitality venues, filled with people and traffic. "The more you cluster there, the more pressure you put on that crossing," said Raphael Clemente, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, a taxing district that promotes the downtown.
Whatever is built in this part of West Palm Beach is important because Okeechobee Boulevard is a gateway to the city’s downtown from Interstate 95.
An advisory board made up of leading meeting planners want to see a pedestrian crossing that is an improvement from the current status of having to walk across several lanes of traffic, according to TDC Executive Director Glenn Jergensen. "They’ve all said, ‘ You really need to build that bridge. It’s such an important component to the safety of the individuals at conventions and meetings.’"
This gateway location is a challenge, and it’s not a new challenge. Talk has been ongoing for years over whether to build a tunnel or a skybridge for pedestrians wishing to cross the road and avoid cars.
In the past, officials with New York-based Related Cos., which built Rosemary Square and the Hilton hotel, haven’t loved the idea of either a tunnel or a bridge. In 2015, Related Urban Chief Executive Ken Himmel said, "It's very difficult to move people above or below."
The city’s former mayor, Jeri Muoio, wasn’t a fan of a bridge or tunnel, either.
Elevated pedestrian walkways and bridges were considered when the city studied Okeechobee Boulevard again in 2018, but nothing came of the suggestion.
But with the convention center district continued to grow, West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James said he’s going to keep an open mind.
"My leadership style is collaborative," James said. "I’m willing to engage in the conversation and look at the pluses and minuses" of a bridge. "I’m not dismissing it out of hand."
Jergensen said James is well-versed on the convention center’s growth because he formerly served on the Tourist Development Council board.
Although it’s not clear how a pedestrian bridge would work, Jergensen said CSL and its architecture partner, Populous, have experience with the concept through projects around the world.
Jergensen thinks the bridge probably would be a stand-alone element and not necessarily linked only to the convention center. In fact, he said there already is thought to creating a circle-style concept with different entrances along Okeechobee Boulevard.
Whatever the solution, it might not be an easy fix. Okeechobee Boulevard is a state road, State Road 704. Traffic lights are operated by Palm Beach County. The city owns part of the median.
And of course, the cost of a pedestrian bridge depends on its style and size.
Nonetheless, developers interested in building more hotels downtown are keeping a close eye on the study and are eager to hear its results, Jergensen said.
CSL is slated to turn in its 18-week study during the first quarter of 2020.
Staff writer Tony Doris contributed to this column.