FIU Hotel Project Delayed Due to COVID-19 Pandemic

Architectural renderings for the hotel,conference, and alumni center/ photo courtesy of FIU

Angela Rivas / Staff Writer

A private pool, hotel rooms overlooking Miami palm trees, and a place for alumni panthers to reconnect was expected for the FIU community in the fall of 2021.

The university planned to open a hotel, conference, and alumni center – the first of its kind in South Florida. Now, the project is delayed as it faces multiple challenges emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking opposing viewpoints from the university’s Board of Trustees.

The hotel and conference center was intended to bring together students, faculty and alumni for university events, said Kenneth Jessell, FIU’s Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer. 

With a cost of around $62.3 million for the hotel plus conference center and $8.7 million for the alumni center, the developers are putting into question the terms of the contract due to pandemic concerns of impacting the further construction of the project, according to Jessell. 

South East entrance to hotel, conference, and alumni center/ photo courtesy of FIU

“The hotel and conference center will serve accommodation and conference needs of students, faculty, researchers, visitors and the community for a variety of purposes ranging from academic conferences to award ceremonies,” wrote Jessell in an email to PantherNOW. 

The 32,000 square foot hotel, projected to be the size of the FIU baseball field, would hold 150 beds and be connected to the alumni center. The 13,700 square foot building  is designed to be roughly larger than the Stocker Astroscience Center, located in the Modesto Maidique Campus.

The $71 million project was first approved in 2017 by the FIU BOT. A year later, the Florida Board of Governors approved the partnership between FIU and Concord Benchmark LLC, a Florida company which will operate the hotel and conference center. The project was to be built by Concord Eastridge- a Virginia construction company affiliated with Concord Benchmark LLC- and designed by Atlanta based Rabun architects.

Concord Eastridge has previously worked with universities such as Arizona State University  and Virginia Tech on P3 developments, public private partnerships or private sector construction companies in charge of the projects on their campuses. 

As the pandemic caused the university to close March of last year, the BOT made changes regarding the timeline of the hotel sublease date to the hotel and conference center proposal in June of 2020.

“The developer has requested that the parties agree on a procedure to delay the effective date of the hotel sublease, which is the date that triggers the developer’s due diligence period and other critical dates in the construction timeline,” said Jessell in a BOT meeting in February. 

This date was to be triggered when the project’s start up conditions or guidelines are met by the university.

The conditions stipulated by FIU and Concord Benchmark LLC include: 

  • FIU shall lift all of its domestic COVID-19 related travel restrictions and material international COVID-related travel restrictions.
  • Students that attend in-person classes shall return to campus and are attending classes on campus.
  • There are no longer mandatory face mask mandates on campus imposed by any governmental authority, as stipulated by FIU and Concord Benchmark LLC.

These conditions have to be met by the university and if approved within 36 months by FIU president Mark B. Rosenberg , in order to start the commencement date of the sublease. If conditions are not met in that time frame, then either party may terminate, according to Jessell. 

Once conditions are met, the developers must start construction within 12 months. 

But, there are concerns within the FIU BOT regarding the terms of the agreement.

Trustee Natasha Lowell expressed how she believes pre-COVID-19 conditions may not be achievable and that the university is being put in a difficult position announced in a BOT Finance and Facilities meeting in February. 

Another trustee argued that the commencement conditions can lead to disputes between the university and the developers. 

“This opens you up to a lot of back and forth. I can take any of the points and argue that the president is wrong. I have real concerns with this list,” said the trustee. 

Trustee Marc D. Sarnoff is also concerned, saying, “They are so broad and not well defined. I would suggest to you that they are nothing more than arguments for either side.” 

Apart from opposing the conditions to begin construction of the hotel and conference center, there are financial problems surrounding the proposal. 

The alumni center will be funded by a direct investment of the FIU Foundation, a non-profit governed by the Board of Directors used for the advancement of the university, which will occupy, own and operate the Alumni Center, according to Jessell. 

But even with investments, he explained how the current financial market is impaired due to the pandemic.  

“As a result of COVID-19, the hotel developer has advised FIU that the market for users of the hotel and conference center as well as participants in the debt equity market are all materially impaired and will not support the development of the project at this time,” said Jessell. 

There were also concerns about the hotelier and Sarnoff expressed that he feels he is the wrong partner. 

The trustee explained he feels the hotelier provides very little information to questions asked by the trustees, giving very limited information.

“There comes a time when we have to do the right thing and just simply end this particular aspect of the hotel. We now have an opportunity during this time that we are in to get the right partner,” said Sarnoff. 

He still believes FIU should create a hotel and conference center, but take into consideration treating the hotel as a part of the university’s plan to become an urban campus. 

Sarnoff believes the design is outdated, being one of his key points to initially opposing the project from the start. 

“Why I opposed it [hotel project] at its inception is you have the wrong design, it looks dated. It also demonstrates that we [FIU] does not value our land, that we do not recognize that someday we [FIU] will be an urban campus,” he said. 

With opposing arguments from the trustees and delays due to COVID-19 pandemic, trustee Dean Colson, chair of the BOT, provides a solution to the problem at hand. 

He believes that moving the proposal to 24 months and getting rid of the commencement conditions could ease tensions.

There have been many challenges concerning this project and the BOT will decide if students and alumni will ever step foot inside an FIU hotel and conference center. 

“The Alumni Center is an important component of the project and will be a place for FIU’s 215,000 alumni to call home, create affinity, and celebrate FIU’s past and visionary future,” said Jessell.  

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