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Does Austin need a bigger convention center?

Friday, August 26, 2016 by Syeda Hasan

City leaders are considering a plan to expand the Austin Convention Center, but some question how much the entire city would benefit from the project.

The convention industry is sort of like an invisible arms race among cities. Who can build the biggest, baddest convention center to attract the most coveted events? For some time now, the Austin Convention Center Department has been seeking to expand the downtown facility. Department Director Mark Tester said that the goal is to draw more visitors and make it a year-round attraction.

“The market demand is there,” Tester said. “The amount of business is there. The growth in the Austin community both in business with the airport, and even especially the medical school, really gave a tremendous climate for us to continue to succeed.”

The Austin Convention Center was built in 1992 amid concerns that the then-Palmer Auditorium wasn’t big enough and that Austin was losing business. The center was expanded to twice its size in 2002 – it currently spans six city blocks. The latest proposed expansion would add a new building across Trinity Street, and the two would be connected by pedestrian walkways. Tester said the ultimate goal is to create a “convention center district.”

The thinking behind the design, he said, “is to have an area that actually would line up with Third Street, where people could walk through, and there would be like a food court and a music area and retail and restaurants, and just a beautiful open area.”

The project is no small undertaking. It is estimated to cost anywhere from $400 million to $600 million – but is it a smart investment? We posed that question to Brian Casey, president of the nonprofit Center for Exhibition Industry Research.

“There are naysayers to this, but I can tell you that the industry is showing some strength, and I think that if cities choose not to invest in their infrastructure, they might find themselves compromised from a competitive standpoint,” Casey said.

The convention center is primarily funded through the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, a fee that is collected from hotel guests and used to promote the tourism and convention industry. But recently, City Council members voted to explore other uses for that tax revenue. District 3 Council Member Pio Renteria said that expansion of the convention center wouldn’t necessarily benefit his constituents. He’s hosting a town hall on the proposal tomorrow along with District 1 Council Member Ora Houston.

“Me and Ora had a concern about, why are we supporting the convention center if we’re not going to benefit out of it?” Renteria said. “We want to see all the minority cultural centers to benefit out of it, not just the few groups that have been historically getting that funding.”

Ultimately, the expansion needs approval from Council to move forward. The town hall kicks off tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center, 2608 Gonzales St.

Photo by Ed Schipul (Flickr: Austin Convention Center, SXSW 2011) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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