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NAPLES — A convention center doesn't belong just anywhere.
The real estate mantra "location, location, location" appears to hold true for a successful convention center.
Finding the right spot could be one of the biggest challenges if a local businessman's pitch for a convention center in the Naples area ever gains political and community support.
Convention centers should be close to hotels, shops, restaurants and entertainment, industry experts say. Based on those requirements, good sites appear to be limited in the Naples area, especially downtown.
"I don't know a site big enough in the city to allow what would need to be built," Naples Mayor John Sorey said.
Some have suggested a prime piece of downtown Naples real estate, once known as Grand Central Station, could be an ideal site for a convention center. At nearly 20 acres, the land off Goodlette-Frank Road across from Bayfront, was foreclosed on by Alabama-based Regions Bank. It sold at a public auction on Nov. 28, with the bank's sole bid of $100.
The property sits off Fifth Avenue South, putting it close to the historic downtown street's gourmet eateries, trendy shops and sophisticated art galleries — and close to the beach.
Even though it's one of the largest empty commercial sites in the city, Sorey said developers and other experts he has talked with have told him it's not nearly big enough to support a successful convention center.
"I don't think it's a feasible project with that many acres," he said. "You need twice as many and maybe three times as many acres to make it work."
The city's 42-foot height limit for commercial buildings also could have a cooling effect on a convention center project.
Naples City Council plans to hold a workshop early next year to discuss whether the height limit should be increased in the so-called "D-Downtown" zoning district, which is targeted for redevelopment and includes the former Grand Central Station site that the NCH Healthcare System once hoped to turn into a thriving medical village. The workshop was triggered by rumblings about a convention center in the city.
The city's Community Redevelopment Agency is working on a new vision for itself and downtown. Councilman Sam Saad, the agency's chairman, said he wants the former Renaissance Village property to "achieve its highest and best use," whatever that may be."I think downtown Naples needs a convention center," he said. "I don't know if that's the right spot or not."
Naples developer Jack Antaramian once planned to redevelop the Grand Central site, turning it into Renaissance Village, a mixed-use project with homes, shops and entertainment. Construction was slated to begin in 2007, but the project never got off the ground after the real estate boom went bust.
Antaramian said he has heard talk of a convention center on the site but doesn't think it would work without adding more land to support parking and a hotel. It could work by combining the site with vacant land on Central Avenue that once was home to the Naples Daily News headquarters, he said.
The land on the north side of Central Avenue is back on the market after a developer dropped his plans to buy it. At nearly 9 acres, it would be big enough to support a parking garage. However, Antaramian said he would rather see the city buy his former Renaissance Village site for a park. A convention center, he said, would damage the ambiance of Naples.
"It dramatically changes the heart of what Naples is. That's a mistake," Antaramian said. "What you have there is a beautiful canvas. Now, you just need the right artist to put that painting on that canvas."
Michael Fernandez, owner of Planning Development Inc. in Naples, said an "interested party" asked his company to look into the viability of building a convention center on the former Renaissance Village site and an adjacent 2-acre property where Florida Gulf Coast University once planned a 50,000-square-foot performance and exhibit hall with classrooms at the corner of Goodlette-Frank Road and U.S. 41 East. The study, which he declined to share, showed it wouldn't make financial sense, he said.
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"I think somebody needs a dose of realism when it comes to talking about a convention center," Fernandez said. "All in all it's just not very viable. It's just too expensive."
For a client he wouldn't disclose, his company looked at the possibility of building a 100,000-square-foot, two-story convention center with seating for up to 3,000 for larger events. A center of that size could cost $40 million to build, not including land costs or parking, Fernandez said. The center would require at least 1,500 parking spaces, and building them would be costly, he said.
The study looked at two options for parking: Build a garage on 4 acres or a parking lot on 12 acres. At an estimated cost of $20,000 for every space, a garage would cost the most — at more than $30 million, Fernandez said.
Land costs could be in the range of $25 million.
"You're talking about pretty big numbers," he said. "So that's a huge commitment."
The convention hotel would be a separate cost. Even if an interested developer is found, he would likely ask for government incentives to build and support it, Fernandez said.
After his clients saw the analysis, they lost interest in the project, Fernandez said.
"They were kind of shocked," he said. "They didn't understand the economics of a convention center — that they don't make money."
His analysis included a hotel with at least 200 rooms at a cost of $2.5 million. A second phase would have added another 200 rooms, doubling the cost for the developer.
Elsewhere in Collier County, there are larger sites that could fit a convention center, but their location away from the draws of the city could make them less desirable for convention-goers.
Ron Rice, president and CEO of City Gate, the company that's developing a project by the same name off Collier Boulevard, believes his site is the most ideal for a convention center.
There's plenty of room for a center stretching 100,000 square feet or more and the location is convenient because it's close to Interstate 75, he said.
"Where we are located, it's a great link to the east coast," Rice said.
Also, there are already two Marriott hotels on site, with 220 rooms. They opened in 2009.
"We have a heck of an edge," Rice said.
At City Gate, there's still 50 vacant acres that could accommodate up to 700,000 square feet of commercial development.
"It's shovel-ready, which means as soon as you get permits you can build," Rice said.
At one time the development was scouted as a potential spring training site for the Chicago Cubs, which explored a location in Naples before deciding to stay put in Mesa, Ariz., in 2010.
The best sites would be near Germain Arena, next to Interstate 75 in Estero, next to Southwest Florida International Airport, or at Gulf Coast Town Center in San Carlos Park, said David Lester, owner of International Fine Art Expositions in Bonita Springs, who hoped to have a convention center in North Naples off Immokalee Road but ran into trouble with Collier code enforcement over signs.
"I don't see why Collier and Lee can't get together and build a convention center," Lester said. "A Lee-Collier regional convention center, a Southwest Florida convention center, would be fantastic."
__ Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden