As a global pandemic continues to cause disruptions and uncertainties for consumers and businesses alike, many development projects have been delayed—including the much-anticipated expansion of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center. Due to a dramatic decrease in tourism, county administrators and elected officials have had to consider what long-term effects the pandemic might have on the county’s ability to pay for the massive project within the next 30 years.
Once the renovations are finished, the iconic venue will house more than 1.2 million square feet—including 350,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space, an additional 50,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, a 65,000 square-foot waterfront ballroom, innovative dining options, enhanced water-taxi access and a waterfront plaza; an upscale 800-room headquarters hotel operated by Omni Hotels & Resorts will also be added. The estimated cost of the upgrades? A whopping $1 billion. A related project would see a bypass road relieve congestion on SE 17th Street.
The expansion project consists of three main phases: the western expansion, the eastern expansion and the addition of the new hotel. The western expansion primarily includes the expansion of the exhibition space. Work for that portion of the convention center has already begun and is slated to be completed in October 2021. However, construction of the new hotel and the expansion of the east side of the convention center have been delayed. The eastern expansion will add substantial meeting room space and a palatial waterfront ballroom, with new kitchen and commissary facilities to service the entire complex.
According to assistant county administrator Alan Cohen, the primary reason for the delay of the expansion has to do with the bond market. The county had intended to pay for the project by issuing bonds, but after the pandemic hit, plans changed. “Because of uncertainty in the bond market regarding tourism and hospitality, tourism-related financing is not as attractive as it once was,” Cohen says. “As soon as there is more certainty in the market, we’ll be able to go to the market and get much better rates that are affordable.”
The hotel would have separate bond issuances from the expansion project. Expected to cost $491 million, the hotel’s own revenues would pay back the bonds for the hotel construction. Meanwhile bonds for the expansion of the convention center, estimated to cost $584 million, would be paid back by Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenues. The county does not plan on moving forward with the bond issuances until tourism and TDT revenues have risen enough to pay off debts incurred.
Despite financial setbacks, one thing is certain: the completed expansion project will bring a host of exciting possibilities and opportunities for Broward County and Fort Lauderdale. And it won’t only cater to business professionals; locals, residents and vacationers will be able to enjoy its services as well. In addition to a new shopping site, the five-acre waterfront plaza will feature three exclusive restaurants.
“The restaurants will be on the northeast corner of the plaza, fairly close to the water, so they’ll have great waterfront views. We believe that they will be a wonderful amenity,” Cohen says.
The plaza will have an amphitheater that will host concerts and other performances. Nearby residents shouldn’t worry too much about the noise levels, though. “We’re making the amphitheater acoustic with minimally amplified sounds from the speakers, because we do have residential neighbors around us and we want to be sensitive to them,” Cohen says. “So, we’re only going to allow activities that generate a reasonable level of noise.”
Up until recently, the most northern part of the waterfront was home to Baleària Caribbean’s ferry service. The ferry allowed tourists and Bahamian locals to travel back and forth from Port Everglades to the Bahamas. Since the ferry service has been relocated to a different part of the port, that space will now be accessible to the general public; it will also become part of the waterfront plaza.
“It’s going to be a really large space with a mixture of hardscape and softscape, so people can come and lounge there,” Cohen says. “We’ll be able to hold meetings there, pitch tents for different events and even hold festivals there.”
Locals and residents can attest to the fact that SE 17th Street is one of the most congested in the city. As plans for the expansion project continue to grow, so do traffic concerns. That’s why city and county are working to ensure that a bypass road gets built.
“It has been a great partnership between the city and the county,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis says. “The county has worked with us, realizing that there would be a significant impact on the infrastructure that a brand-new hotel and an expanded convention center would have on the community.”
The bypass road would create an alternative roadway to 17th Street, allowing cars coming from the south to empty out onto Eisenhower Boulevard. The county is now in negotiations with the design firm responsible for the final design of the road.
“I wouldn’t expect construction to start on the bypass road until early 2022,” Cohen says. “We would expect completion in mid-2024.”