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NAPLES — Up and down the state, and across the country, convention centers dot the landscape.
Dozens of cities have them, but many of the centers are money-losers, built and kept afloat with taxpayers' money.
Naples isn't in the convention center business. Whether it should be, and whether it's a gamble worth taking, depends on who you ask.
Reinhold Schmieding, founder and president of Arthrex Inc. in North Naples, made his pitch for a convention center in Collier County earlier this year, saying he would use it for his own company's events and it would bring other major players in the medical industry to town for big meetings, giving the area an economic shot in the arm.
The county's tourism bureau created a committee to look at ways to grow medical tourism. A few months later, Collier's Tourist Development Council directed the committee to explore a convention center, but the idea to build one hasn't gained any real momentum since Schmieding's proposal.
"At this point, there is nothing on our agenda, and there is nothing that we are ready to discuss," said Murray Hendel, the tourist council's chairman. "I think it's just premature. You have to see if there's any community interest in something like that."
Any serious discussion about a convention center should start with the Tourist Development Council, which should look for the community to weigh in, said Margie Hapke, a county government spokeswoman.
One of the first steps a county, city or state usually takes when it is considering building a convention center is to pay for a feasibility study to look at competition and demand.
The county's tourism panel could then bring a recommendation to county commissioners, who would be the ones to direct the county manager to spend money on a convention center study if they believe one is needed, Hapke said.
'Need large facility'
When he suggested the need for a convention center, Schmieding said his company — a growing manufacturer of orthopedic devices — could help bring in large health-care conferences, pumping millions of dollars into the local economy.
He won't spearhead the convention center idea, but he has encouraged others who support it to lobby their elected leaders for one.
"We need a large facility to accommodate large groups, which we have routinely."
"We need a large facility to accommodate large groups, which we have routinely," Schmieding said.
The company has three to four big events a year and spends $1.3 million on its national sales meeting alone, which attracts about 1,200 of its employees. Last year, that meeting was held in Texas. This year, it moved to Arizona.
His events, he said, are just too big to be hosted at local hotels, which don't have enough meeting rooms for them.
Yet his company alone wouldn't fill a convention center for most of the year, leading many to question whether it makes sense to spend millions of dollars to build one because most convention centers are built with and often run with taxpayers' money.
Others don't see the need
Some business and community leaders are ready to shrug off Schmieding's idea without another thought.
"We just don't think there's a need for that in the marketplace right now."
Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director, said he's not convinced there's enough demand for such a center in Naples.
"We just don't think there's a need for that in the marketplace right now," he said.
From the start, Naples would be at a disadvantage because it doesn't have a cluster of hotels to support a convention center, said Rick Medwedeff, general manager of the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort — one of the area's leading convention hotels — and a longtime member of the county's Tourist Development Council.
Although there are dozens of hotels in the county, they're spread out, a hassle for potential conventioneers, he said.
"If you look at Tampa, they have a big convention center that's anchored to a hotel right there and there is a density of hotels within close proximity of that downtown area," he said. "Same thing in Orlando. Same thing in Miami. Same thing in Fort Lauderdale. That is what makes that work. We don't have that."
No anchor hotel
Not including an anchor hotel would be the "kiss of death," Wert said. "The meetings just won't come there."
A connecting hotel would add millions of dollars to the price tag of a convention center project in Collier.
Medwedeff has been a vocal opponent of building a convention center in Naples, especially if it involves tapping the limited tourist tax dollars needed to market the destination to visitors.
Building such a project with taxpayers' money for one company, whether it's Arthrex or another one, would be a mismanagement of public money, he said.
"I don't believe it's necessary," Medwedeff said. "I don't think we need to waste money to even do a feasibility study."
Others in the industry disagree.
"It's a serious opportunity that needs serious study," said Michael Hughes, a managing director for Red 7 Media, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based convention consulting firm.
Charlie Johnson, president of Johnson Consulting Inc., a real estate consulting firm in Chicago, said Naples might want to consider looking at building a smaller convention center and partnering with a private developer to build a project such as The Renaissance World Golf Village Resort & Convention Center northwest of St. Augustine on Florida's east coast.
The convention center, spanning 40,000 square feet, was built by St. Johns County government after it was approached by a private developer about building one as part of a golf village that includes homes, golf courses, hotels and other businesses.
The village is home to the World Golf Hall of Fame, which relocated there in 1998 from Pinehurst, N.C., after the PGA Tour moved its headquarters to St. Johns County.
Bonds were floated to pay for the construction of the county's convention center, which cost $11 million to build. The bonds are being paid back with tourist taxes — or bed taxes — charged at hotels in and around the World Golf Village, surcharges on parking, and admission fees at the World Golf Hall of Fame. The repayment cost is $1.3 million a year.
"The public-private partnership worked really well for St. Johns County. We own the convention center, yet we put very little money into it. It generates sales taxes. It generates bed taxes," said Glenn Hastings, executive director of the county's Tourist Development Council.
Additionally, the World Golf Hall of Fame attracts attention from around the globe whenever it inducts new members, he said.
In St. Johns County, there was no significant meeting space before the convention center was built, Hastings said.
Is the time right?
With the economy starting to improve, it could be an ideal time to look into building a center in the Naples area, Hughes said.
"I think Naples is a unique area with a lot of strengths," he said. "I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. But it's a serious investment."
Naples is a marquee location with a strong brand, and its hotels already attract many out-of-town meetings, he pointed out, adding that it's not like it's "in the middle of South Dakota."
He said Schmieding could be onto something, with the suggestion a convention center in Naples could target medical conferences and events. There are about 500 medical conventions and trade shows a year in the U.S., not including thousands of meetings for medical corporations, he said. He estimates those events represent about 10 percent of the total number of meetings and conventions nationwide.
Yet it will take political will and millions of dollars to build a convention center — and there are many challenges that could make it tough for one to thrive in Collier County.
The Naples Municipal Airport doesn't have any scheduled airline service. The closest airport that does — Southwest Florida International — is more than 40 miles from downtown Naples.
Higher air fares and higher hotel rates could be other drawbacks.
How to pay for it
There are questions about where the money would come from to build a multimillion-dollar convention center in Collier. Tapping tourist tax dollars would "cripple our marketing efforts," Wert said.
Already, there's not enough money for year-round promotion, which makes it tough to compete with other Florida destinations with much larger marketing budgets, he said.
While the tourist tax is expected to raise $14.3 million this year, only $2.35 million will go toward marketing the destination.
The tourist tax — a 4 percent charge on hotels and other vacation rentals — also supports museums and pays for beach renourishment and beach park projects in Collier County.
Hoteliers have fought a penny increase in the tax, which could help pay for a convention center, saying it would hurt their business.
The bureau also would need to find more money to market a convention center, Wert said.
"We just don't have the infrastructure, nor the demand to support a dedicated meeting space like that," he said. "We still have a lot of capacity to fill in the meeting space that we have within our meeting hotels."
Monday: How much convention space and business does Collier County have, and who would be the competition?