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Opinion: Rethinking Jacksonville’s convention center dilemma

Published on January 18, 2022 at 6:14 pm

A new convention center has been in Jacksonville’s long-term plans for decades, but the Downtown Investment Authority now says it could be another 10 years before the city is ready for the type of major center it has typically explored. However, if we rethink our expectations and build upon the existing assets of the Downtown Hyatt, Jacksonville could have a convention center that would fulfill our current needs without breaking the bank.

The background

For many years, Jacksonville leaders have hoped to build a new convention center to replace the undersized Prime Osborn Convention Center in LaVilla. In 2017, the city commissioned a study for a new convention center on the former sites of the old Courthouse and City Hall Annex on Bay Street that made a series of design recommendations. The study led to an official design competition, and bidders were judged on meeting the study’s recommendations.

In September 2018, the Downtown Investment Authority selected Jacobs Development as the winner. In the meantime, Jaguars owner Shad Khan expressed interest in building a convention center near TIAA Bank Field, and in December 2018, Mayor Lenny Curry put the convention center project on ice. Since then, the city has moved forward with an effort to develop the Courthouse site without the City Hall Annex lot, while Jacobs has submitted two pitches, hoping to develop the entire property with a convention center. In rejecting Jacobs’ most recent bid, Downtown Investment Authority CEO Lori Boyer said Jacksonville was 5 to 10 years away from having a market that could support a convention center of the scope defined by the 2017 study.

This leads to a dilemma: City leaders acknowledge that the Prime Osborn Convention Center is inadequate, and in fact it impedes the long-term goal of restoring the building as a passenger rail station, but they believe the city is years away from supporting the kind of convention center defined by the 2017 study. If both these things are true, it would appear that the real problem here lies in the study.


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Studies, studies everywhere

A rendering of the 2018 Jacobs convention center proposal. The proposal was a response to development criteria earmarked for a future convention center much larger than what Jacksonville can currently support. (Courtesy of Jacobs Development)

As we’ve written about before, Jacksonville has an addiction to studies. We get so hung up on studies and reports and consultants’ recommendations that we often lose sight of our goals and never move forward. The 2017 Convention Center Study is a perfect example: Its requirements are so out of step with what Jacksonville’s market needs that it has set back a decision on a convention center for the last five years and counting.

The study found that Jacksonville should build a convention center with a 200,000-square-foot exhibition hall, 40,000-square-foot ballroom, at least 45 meeting and breakout rooms, a full-service restaurant, optional boat slips, a 350-room, full-service convention center hotel and a 1,700-space parking garage. The estimated cost for this was $250 million to $430 million, with some of the 2018 bids greatly exceeding that figure. There are two main problems here. First, the study doesn’t explain why some of these requirements are important; for instance, why do we need a 200,000-square-foot exhibition hall? Second, the study doesn’t take into account existing assets that already meet the stated requirements.

Jacksonville’s dilemma and a logical solution

Proposed for the former Duval County Courthouse site on East Bay Street, The Hardwick at Ford on Bay would add a marina, retail, dining, and entertainment space that would support an expanded Hyatt Riverfront Regency convention center complex on the adjacent former City Hall Annex site. (Rendering courtesy of Carter USA)

Let’s put it this way: The DIA states there needs to be more restaurant, entertainment and retail options in Downtown before the city can attract enough convention business to support a new facility. But Downtown Jacksonville is already in the convention business and has been since the opening of the Prime Osborn Convention Center nearly four decades ago. The goal shouldn’t be reaching some point where arbitrary convention center requirements can be supported. It should be a finding a solution that meets our actual needs and market conditions.

It’s clear the Prime Osborn isn’t the solution. Antiquated and more than a mile from the Northbank core, it lacks a connected full-service hotel, and restaurants, entertainment and retail options within walking distance. Its 78,540-square-foot exhibition hall is also too small. Built as a train station, it is a facility that would be better off being converted back into a train station to complement JTA’s new $60 million Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center in LaVilla. 

On the other hand, Jacksonville has assets that fulfill many of the needs of a convention center. In 1998, the city invested $21 million in public incentives to build the Adam’s Mark Hotel, now the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront. The Hyatt is a full-service convention hotel with 951 rooms, centrally located, and in walking distance of restaurant and entertainment options within the growing Elbow entertainment district. It also has 116,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 28,000-square-foot ballroom, 41 meeting and breakout rooms, several restaurants and 21,000 square feet of riverfront deck space. This covers much of what the Convention Center Study recommended other than the lack of a large exhibition hall. 

Fortunately, the Hyatt is also located immediately adjacent to the 104,980-square-foot City Hall Annex lot that has been targeted for convention center space for years. As such, solving Jacksonville’s convention center dilemma isn’t a matter of constructing a massive new facility, or just kicking the can down the road another decade. A practical, time-efficient and cost-effective solution to Jacksonville’s situation would be to simply expand the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront’s existing meeting facilities with a 100,000-square-foot exhibition hall on the City Hall Annex site. 

In addition to immediately meeting the majority of the requirements laid out in the Convention Center Study, the Hyatt could be complemented by other forthcoming developments. The proposed Ford on Bay development could include a marina and 25,000 square feet of retail and dining space on the former courthouse site next door to the Hyatt, while the city is hoping for a mixed-use public space at Lenny’s Lawn just two blocks away. When combined with what already exists within walking distance, like the Florida Theatre and Northbank Riverwalk, the clustering of complementing uses within a compact setting gives Downtown the concentrated collection of restaurant, entertainment and retail options some believe are needed to support a convention facility. 

How Jacksonville’s convention assets stack up

A look at other mid-sized cities’ convention centers show that Jacksonville’s existing assets compare favorably. It also calls into question some of the findings of the 2017 Convention Center Study, including the claim that Jacksonville needs a 200,000-square-foot exhibition hall. Even Palm Beach, which has a substantially higher population and more tourist traffic than Jacksonville, thrives with an exhibition hall half that size.

Prime Osborn Convention Center, Jacksonville

  • 2020 city population: 949,611
  • 2020 metropolitan area population: 1,605,848
  • Convention center hotel: N/A
  • Size of exhibition hall: 78,540 square feet
  • Size of grand ballroom: 10,140 square feet

Expanded Hyatt Riverfront Regency, Jacksonville

  • 2020 city population: 949,611
  • 2020 metropolitan area population: 1,605,848
  • Convention center hotel: Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront (951 rooms)
  • *Size of exhibition hall: 100,000 square feet
  • Size of grand ballroom: 27,984 square feet

*Existing Hyatt Riverfront Regency hotel meeting facilities with the addition of a connected exhibition hall on the adjacent former City Hall Annex block. In this scenario, the DIA’s plans for Ford on Bay would complement the convention center, Hyatt Riverfront Regency hotel, and Elbow entertainment district.

DeVos Place Convention Center, Grand Rapids, Michigan

DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids opened in 2004. (DeVos Place)
  • 2020 city population: 198,917
  • 2020 metropolitan area population: 1,087,592
  • Convention center hotels: JW Marriott (337 rooms), Amway Grand Plaza (664 rooms) 
  • Size of exhibition hall: 162,000 square feet
  • Size of grand ballroom: 40,000 square feet

Jackson Convention Complex, Jackson, Mississippi

The $65 million Jackson Convention Complex was completed in 2009. (Downtown Jackson Partners)

  • 2020 city population: 153,701 
  • 2020 metropolitan area population: 591,978
  • Convention center hotel: The Westin Jackson (203 rooms)
  • Size of exhibition hall: 85,000 square feet
  • Size of grand ballroom: 25,000 square feet

Palm Beach County Convention Center, West Palm Beach, Florida

  • 2020 city population: 117,415
  • 2020 metropolitan area population: 6,138,333 
  • Convention center hotel: Hilton West Palm Beach (400 rooms)
  • Size of exhibition hall: 100,000 square feet
  • Size of grand ballroom: 22,000 square feet

Renasant  Convention Center, Memphis, Tennessee

  • 2020 city population: 633,104
  • 2020 metropolitan area population: 1,337,779
  • Convention center hotel: Sheraton Memphis Downtown (600 rooms)
  • Size of exhibition hall: 118,000 square feet
  • Size of grand ballroom: 28,000 square feet

Tucson Convention Center, Tuscon, Arizona

The Tucson Convention Center in May 2019. (Michael Barera and Wikipedia)
  • 2020 city population: 542,629
  • 2020 metropolitan area population: 1,043,433
  • Convention center hotel: DoubleTree by Hilton Tucson Downtown Convention Center (170 rooms)
  • Size of exhibition hall: 89,760 square feet
  • Size of grand ballroom: 20,164 square feet

Von Braun Center, Huntsville, Alabama

  • 2020 city population: 215,006
  • 2020 metropolitan area population: 491,723
  • Convention center hotel: Embassy Suites by Hilton Huntsville (295 rooms)
  • Size of exhibition hall: 100,800 square feet
  • Size of grand ballroom: 24,900 square feet

author image The Jaxson Ennis Davis, AICP is an urban planner and co-owner of The Jaxson and Modern Cities. Reach Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com. author image The Jaxson Bill is a writer, marketing director and higher education professional whose writing focuses on the culture and history of the First Coast.
author image The Jaxson Ennis Davis, AICP is an urban planner and co-owner of The Jaxson and Modern Cities. Reach Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com. author image The Jaxson Bill is a writer, marketing director and higher education professional whose writing focuses on the culture and history of the First Coast.

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