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As San Juan Palace Rises, So Do An Island's Hopes


July 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - The history of Old San Juan, the beauty of the tropical rain forest and the rich cultural heritage have long made Puerto Rico a popular offshore destination for tourists.

But by summer 2005, the island expects to attract a new market -- conventioneers.

After more than a decade of planning and delays, the long-awaited Puerto Rico Convention Center is rising from the ground on the former U.S. Naval and Coast Guard base not far from the entrance to Old San Juan.

When done, the 580,000-square-foot facility will be the largest destination of its kind in the Caribbean -- and a potential competitor for South Florida's convention centers, particularly the one in Fort Lauderdale.

The facility is the centerpiece of a $415 million development that is the largest tourism project in the island's history. The Convention Center District, which includes 113 acres, is expected to include two hotels, apartments or condominiums, office buildings, movie theaters, restaurants and retail shops with a total projected investment of $1.27 billion.

''This is going to change the whole urban scenery in Puerto Rico,'' said Manuel Sánchez Biscombe, executive director of the Convention Center District.

With the center, San Juan will have the capacity to attract groups with 2,500 to 4,500 conventioneers, and that could stretch as high as 10,000 for a citywide event. And there will be room for up to 152,700 square feet of exhibits.


Painstaking attention has been taken with the design and décor. The undulating roof line is meant to resemble the sweeping waves that cascade along the shoreline. Interior meeting-room doors are replicas of sites in Old San Juan. And bathrooms tiles include petroglyphs from Indian ceremonial parks.

Plus, the technology -- with its capacity for wireless communication, video conferencing and broadband -- is more advanced than that of convention centers elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean.

''This project is going to redefine the tourism landscape for Puerto Rico,'' said Ana María Viscasillas, marketing vice president for the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, the sales and marketing agent for the convention center. ``We believe we can be the meetings hub of the Americas.''

Industry experts agree that the potential is there for the facility to succeed. The challenge, they say, will be for it to distinguish itself from among the large number of convention centers scheduled to open in the coming years.

''For the first time, Puerto Rico is going to be a serious player in the convention market,'' predicted Michael Hughes, director of research for Tradeshow Week.


Already, the Latin American Studies Association and the Society of American Archaeology have committed to convening on the island in 2006.

In fact, the Latin American Studies Association's get-together, scheduled for March of that year, will be the culmination of years of waiting to meet in Puerto Rico.

The group had one convention canceled in 1989 because of Hurricane Hugo and had been trying to reschedule ever since, but the island simply didn't have enough space to accommodate the growing organization.

''I think they're going to do fantastic once they open their doors and get discovered,'' said Harve Horowitz, president of Exhibition Promotions, which handles the booking for the Latin American Studies Association.

The bureau is targeting groups willing to consider offshore destinations, including international or Latin American gatherings of professional associations, educational groups, medical meetings and corporate trade shows.

With travelers increasingly concerned about the security involved in going overseas, Puerto Rico tourism officials hope to lure U.S. conventioneers looking for an exotic yet convenient destination.

The island's advantage: You won't need a passport or have to deal with a new form of currency.

''We have a unique setting,'' said José Suárez, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the government agency that promotes the island.

``You're still in the U.S., but at the same time you feel like you're going far away, to an international place. That's a great combination that no one else can offer.''


South Florida tourism leaders, however, say it still can't compete with Miami or Fort Lauderdale.

''It's more difficult and more expensive to get to Puerto Rico than it is to get to Miami,'' said Bill Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. ``It's all about location, location, location.''

The Puerto Rico center will be about half the size of the Miami Beach Convention Center and have about one-third the amount of exhibit space.

By comparison, the Puerto Rico facility will be about the same size as the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale, but it will offer about 25 percent less exhibit space.


The size comparisons and warm weather are but two reasons that Nicki Grossman, head of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, views Puerto Rico as a competitor.

But that's no different, she says, than how she views Miami Beach, Atlanta and Orlando.

''We are all competing for the same business,'' Grossman said. ``But we all have something a little different to offer.

``The question is how credible Puerto Rico can make [itself] as a business destination?''

One of the first things it needs to prove is that the convention center is for real. The center had been set to open in 2001, and many planners say they won't consider booking until it does open. More than 30 groups are on its tentative booking list.

Puerto Rico is already preparing for the new influx of tourists with a hotel building boom. At least 3,350 rooms are expected to open over the next two years, bringing the total to more than 16,000.

The entire Convention Center District is expected to take about eight years to complete. The next piece to begin construction will be a full-service hotel with approximately 850 rooms. It's slated to open in 2006.

''This is a long-range plan,'' said Karen McShea, senior vice president with Spaulding & Slye Colliers International of Boston, the consultants hired to analyze the master plan.

``You don't develop and plan for the conditions today. We're not talking about building an office park. We're talking about building a piece of urban fabric that needs to evolve and grow with demand.''


Once the Convention Center District has been completed, it's projected to generate more than $300 million per year in gross revenue.

And that is not including the revenue from rentals at the Convention Center, according to an economic-impact study prepared by a San Juan economic consulting firm Estudios Técnicos Inc. in September 2002.

That, by the way, is expected to translate into 3,209 direct jobs and almost double that in indirect benefit.

Puerto Rico leaders expect the impact to be even greater because of the project's proximity to both Old San Juan and the Condado hotel district.

Said José J. Villamil, president of Estudios Técnicos and of the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce: ``As soon as people realize it's going to happen, you'll see development in nearby areas taking place and land prices going up.''

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