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Houston, Casar balk at larger Convention Center

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 by Jo Clifton

The City Council Economic Opportunity Committee rejected a chance to weigh in on the expansion of the Convention Center Monday, with Council Members Ora Houston and Greg Casar saying they were not ready to recommend the consultant’s long-range master plan.

Convention Center Director Mark Tester pushed the committee to recommend moving forward with the planning. But Houston and Casar were not convinced that they should start the ball rolling on what could become a $400 million item on a bond election next November.

Tester said Austin is the place to be, the reason why the restaurants and hotels have grown so quickly, “but I don’t think we can support them without an expansion of the convention center,” he said. “I think the things that we have right now will be imperiled eventually if we don’t expand.”

According to the long-range plan document presented to Council, “More and larger conventions and trade shows draw more out-of-town visitors and their dollars to the city and have a positive economic impact on the performance of the area’s hotels and local businesses. Increases in the Hotel Occupancy Tax and service industry jobs (taxis, restaurants, hotels, retail) are some of the anticipated direct and indirect outcomes of convention center expansion.”

The consultants who worked on the plan have recommended that the Convention Center expand across the street from where it currently is located, as opposed to adding on vertically. They are also recommending additional hotel space. When the Monitor asked Tester after the meeting whether downtown hotels would be in favor of yet another downtown hotel, Tester replied that the Marriott is certainly in favor.

Tester presented documentation showing that convention centers in San Antonio, Houston, Denver, Nashville and San Diego have more exhibit space and more meeting space than Austin. All of these convention centers, plus the convention center in Grapevine near Dallas and several others in state capitals, such as Atlanta and Indianapolis, compete with Austin for conventions, he said.

Tester was hoping that the committee would recommend the master plan ahead of today’s work session.

Houston was particularly strong in her opposition. She asked how long the city would continue to “feed the giant,” saying she would prefer a basketball stadium on the east side to an expanded convention center.

Committee Chair Ellen Troxclair seemed ready to recommend the plan, but she did not push her colleagues to vote. Council Member Leslie Pool was not at the meeting.

The item is on today’s work session agenda and Thursday’s Council agenda.

Photo by Ed Schipul (Flickr: austin convention center, sxsw 2011) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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