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Convention Center to open on time in October

Construction of anchor hotel and 96-unit residential building to begin late this year


February 17, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Right now, the Puerto Rico Convention Center–the centerpiece of an ambitious $1.3 billion mixed-use urban development on a 113-acre plot in Isla Grande–is like a dozing giant, waiting to be awakened. But even as it sleeps, plenty of activity is stirring around it.

With construction of the exterior practically finished, contractors are now getting started on the interior work which will transform what is already a dazzling granite, steel, and glass shell into a world-class meeting and exhibition space that can accommodate 10,000 people simultaneously. The center is on target and will open in October, said Manuel Sánchez Biscombe, executive director of the Convention Center District Authority.

Very shortly, Dallas-based Garfield Traub Development LLC is scheduled to finalize the $175 million financing for the Four Star, 500-room Sheraton hotel it was contracted to build next door to the Convention Center, said Sánchez Biscombe. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. will run the hotel. Construction is slated to begin in September and the hotel should be ready by 2008.

In March, Mora Construction will close financing on a residential project of 96 units, the first of 525 units planned for the area. The building will go up on a parcel of land that Mora acquired from the government for about $7 million. Construction should begin in December and finalize in 2007 with units expected to sell for $600,000 and upwards, according to Sánchez Biscombe, who has headed the authority since 2002. Though an independent agency, the authority falls under the Economic Development & Commerce Department umbrella.

When fully developed, the Convention Center district will be a unique addition to San Juan: part tourism mecca and part minicity with residential, commercial, and office areas set within a landscape of native trees and reflecting pools. Developing the area under a carefully laid out master plan is part of the authority’s mandate, which includes overseeing the Convention Center and the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum. Sánchez Biscombe described the 113-acre lot, occupying about a third of the Isla Grande peninsula, as "the largest urban development project in Puerto Rico in the last 40 years."

Between government and private funds, total investment in the district is estimated to reach $1.3 billion, according to Sánchez Biscombe who expects full development to take less than the projected eight years, assuming the different projects can be pulled off concurrently.

Later this year, the authority plans to put out a request for proposal (RFP) for the construction of one of two 10-story office towers that, along with smaller buildings with office and retail spaces, are being woven into the fabric of the convention center district. Restaurants, grocery stores, retailers, beauty parlors, medical offices, and a movie theater are among the businesses the district authority is hoping to draw to the area in hopes of making it a self-contained community.

The Convention Center is part of Puerto Rico’s bid to attract larger groups to the island and boost the local tourism industry. Sánchez Biscombe said the Government Development Bank will float a bond issue within the next five or six months to cover the $415 million cost of building the center which, he added, hasn’t incurred any cost overruns.

Of that total, $188 million is the cost of the Convention Center building, a massive project that has involved 17 local and outside contractors working under the supervision of Hardin / QB, an Atlanta-based construction management company. Another $91 million covered the cost of laying the infrastructure–water, electricity, roads–needed to develop the 10 parcels into which the 113-acre district is divided. The rest, about $136 million, went for such "soft costs" as permitting, design, and consulting costs.

A massive three-story granite structure with a glass façade topped in the front by an intricate, tubular open weave grid designed to suggest giant interlacing waves, the Convention Center is among the most ambitious structures ever built in Puerto Rico. With 580,000 square feet of space, it will be the largest meeting and convention facility in the Caribbean and among the largest and most technologically advanced in Latin America, according to Ana María Viscasillas, president of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, which is marketing the property on the mainland. "The convention center is finally a reality," she remarked.

According to Sánchez Biscombe, there have been no major holdups since the first pile was driven into the ground three years ago and he expects the structure to be ready by October–barring any unforeseen events. The annual operational cost of the center is pegged at $3.6 million and will be covered from commercial rental income.

"The way to evaluate an economic development project is by how much money it brings to the local economy," said Sánchez Biscombe, noting the center is expected to generate $300 million a year. "This is a unique project for Puerto Rico and opens all kinds of doors of opportunity."

The José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum is run by SMG under a $300,000 annual management contract with the district authority. SMG will also operate the Convention Center under a smaller contract pegged at $125,000 per year.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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