Three companies have shown interest in developing a hotel and conference center on a portion of Chula Vista’s bay front, which has long been home to a patch of weeds and some abandoned buildings. But already the selection process has the makings of a soap opera , real estate style.
After voicing concerns that a hotel with up to 1,700 rooms and 400,000 square feet of meeting space on 43 acres of Chula Vista’s waterfront , as proposed by Gaylord Entertainment, Inc. , could jeopardize its business, the San Diego Convention Center Corp. now wants in on the act.
Nashville, Tenn.-based publicly traded Gaylord Entertainment’s unsolicited proposal of a biosphere containing a massive hotel, which would be the largest built in the county to date, and a convention center took the San Diego Unified Port District officials by surprise. And it nearly entered into an exclusive agreement with the firm.
However, the Port District’s board, which controls the tidelands of the five cities surrounding San Diego Bay, decided in August to solicit bids on the project. In response, JMI Realty, the development firm of San Diego Padres owner John Moores, teamed with the Convention Center Corp., which operates the 2.6 million-square-foot Convention Center in Downtown and submitted an application of qualifications. Another application came from Foxworthy Inc., a San Diego-based entertainment and entertainment-development firm founded by Douglas Foxworthy in 1978. Aside from a convention center and hotel, Foxworthy’s proposal contains an entertainment and educational component.
Gaylord Entertainment, which had been in talks with Port District officials for several months, was given a pre-qualified status.
JMI Realty’s preliminary proposal calls for a facility that would have a hotel with at least 500 rooms and a conference center with at least 75,000 square feet of exhibit space and 75,000 square feet of meeting space. But that could change.
“We really want to follow through with some detailed studies to determine what the right program really is,” said JMI Realty President John Kratzer. “We gave (the Port District) some general ideas and parameters of what we thought is likely, but we will qualify everything.
“At the end of the day, what I’m trying to do is figure out what makes sense there.”
But he believes that “in the end, the market opportunity there (in Chula Vista) will lead you in a direction very different than what you see as a convention center Downtown.”
Kratzer also said he expects that JMI Realty’s proposal, like its Petco Park and Omni San Diego Hotel developments in the East Village, would spur additional development by other companies.
No dollar amount has been set for any of the three Chula Vista bay front proposals.
Asked whether the Convention Center Corp.’s role as the facility operator for the proposed Chula Vista convention center would present a conflict of interest, JMI’s Kratzer said he didn’t think it would.
“We developed a contractual relationship with the San Diego Convention Center because it has incredible experience and resources to bring to the table,” Kratzer said. “Obviously they operate the Convention Center Downtown.
“They know the market, who books conventions and why, and what niche is maybe unsatisfied. So those are the areas we’d really rely on them to help with.
“But as the owner of this thing, we would not allow ourselves to be in any kind of conflict situation, and if it proves ultimately that this facility is a direct competitor to the (San Diego) Convention Center, we’d have to go in a different direction.”
Bill Hall, the chairman of the seven-member Port Commission, said he was surprised that JMI Realty and the Convention Center Corp. teamed up to be prospective bidders, since the Convention Center Corp. recently asked the port to help it fund a study on how a Chula Vista convention center facility could affect the San Diego Convention Center.
“We didn’t know (their application) was coming,” Hall said.
An independent study looking at the “regional impact” of a proposed Chula Vista convention center will still be done, Hall said. However, the Convention Center Corp., as a member of the team competing to develop the project, will not be a participant, he added.
As to whether he thought the Convention Center Corp.’s role as the operator of a Chula Vista convention center would conflict with its task of operating the San Diego Convention Center, Hall said that, “There are questions of funding sources and ties to the city of San Diego that would need to be resolved.”
But a joint resolution between the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista might be one way to resolve those issues, Hall said.
Fred Sainz, the vice president of public affairs for the Convention Center Corp., said: “We would simply be the manager of the facility. This facility would be overseen by a different corporate board. That is what JMI is proposing, a corporation established to run this convention center, another (nonprofit) 501 (c) (3) corporation.”
No name has been selected for such a board, Sainz said.
When Gaylord Entertainment had the sole proposal on the table, Chula Vista Mayor Stephen Padilla embraced the idea. He said he envisioned the massive hotel and convention center bringing thousands of tourism-related jobs to the city, as well as tax increments in a redevelopment zone.
Now that two more firms have shown interest in boosting Chula Vista’s tourism take, he couldn’t be happier. At present, the city’s biggest hotel is the 142-room La Quinta Inn on Bonita Road. Some residents, businesspeople and politicians complain that meetings and gatherings are taken out of Chula Vista north to San Diego, where hotels are large enough to host wedding receptions and other events.
“First, in a general sense, the more people who respond to RFQs (requests for qualifications), the better for Chula Vista,” Padilla said. “But the fact is, there is a need in San Diego for more convention space and clearly there is more business demand.
“The Convention Center turns business away because it already has bookings and doesn’t have the space or the (hotel) rooms and can’t accommodate them. So there would certainly be a benefit to having additional business that is not here now.”
Padilla declined to comment on the relative merit of any of the individual proposals, saying that to do so would be premature.
The San Diego City Council, meanwhile, wants to see an economic impact study on whether a proposed convention center in Chula Vista would benefit the entire county, said Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins.
“Maybe this is apples and oranges in terms of different types of convention centers,” Atkins said. “Would it benefit the region, or be a net negative impact? We don’t know. The city of San Diego doesn’t get to make the determination on the proposed project. But I do think we have the ability and the responsibility to make comments.”