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Convention center advocates taking pro-expansion message to community

Tuesday, April 18, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

A new coalition of Austin business, political and civic leaders is putting its support behind the proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center and will be taking the message to local groups in the coming months.

Known as A New Vision for Austin’s Convention Center, the coalition is operating with some assistance from the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau public relations and marketing resources.

Its members include former Austin Mayor Lee Cooke and several prominent business owners in the engineering, architecture, real estate and entertainment fields, all of whom view the proposed expansion as a potential job engine and chance to revamp a large portion of downtown Austin.

Members tout estimates that in 2015 conventions and tourism brought 24.1 million visitors to Austin, contributing $7 billion in economic impact and helping support the area’s 124,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality workforce. They say the convention center is already so booked that it has to turn down nearly half the requests for business it receives because it doesn’t have enough space.

Cooke said the current predicament is similar to the one the city faced in the 1980s when it became apparent that Palmer Auditorium (now the Palmer Events Center) was too small to keep Austin competitive for conventions and other large activities. The current convention center was completed in 1992 and then expanded to 881,000 square feet of space in 2002.

“Back in ’89 everyone said this is going to be a white elephant that will just sit there,” Cooke said. “Tourism and conventions was a very small industry here in my first year as mayor and was a pretty inconsequential part of our economy. Back then we had 9,000 hotel rooms in the city, and there are 37,000 hotel rooms in Austin now.”

There are currently five scenarios under consideration for the convention center’s expansion. The top price tag is $609 million; that proposal would add 447,450 square feet of exhibition space, 120,800 square feet of meeting space and 120,600 of ballroom space.

The most likely method for funding the expansion would come from a 2 percentage point increase to the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, which can be approved and enacted by a City Council resolution.

A vote by referendum would be necessary only if city leaders opted to pursue one of the less expansive expansion options – totaling $397 million – which would see the city refinance and add to the existing debt on the 2002 expansion.

While the New Vision group has already lined up appearances with local civic groups to discuss the advantages of the expansion, opponents have been vocal as well. Debates about the need for a larger convention center and the center’s actual impact on local hotel business has been a frequent component of meetings for the city’s Visitor Impact Task Force, which is tasked with recommending the best way to allocate the roughly $100 million generated by the current Hotel Occupancy Tax.

Cooke said the convention business the center is missing out on and the demand for events in Austin means it is time for the city to make a decision.

“We’ve got to decide if we stay in the (tourism) business or get out and let it drift away from us,” Cooke said. “This is a big decision for Council. I saw (bond proposal votes) go down three times, and now the convention center is a vital part of our economy.”

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the New Vision group will take up the community outreach portion of the expansion effort so his staff can focus on running the convention center and building its business.

The recommendations from the Visitor Impact Task Force will include suggestions on the future of convention center, with those weighing in on Council’s budget process through the summer. That makes late summer or fall the likely time frame for a decision to be made.

Noonan and Cooke said it’s too early to know if the New Vision group will turn into a more formal lobbying group with an advertising arm in the event that a public referendum on the expansion issue takes place.

“This is a group of business, community and political leaders who feel (the expansion) will be great and have an even bigger impact than the previous two,” Noonan said. “At the end of the day, it’s the mayor and Council who have the opportunity to grow this industry and the number of jobs coming online.”

This story has been corrected. Originally we reported that the public relations and marketing resources were coming from the convention center, when they are in fact from the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau

Photo by Fredlyfish4 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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