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Convention center plans meet resistance from Downtown Commission skeptics

Friday, July 23, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The Downtown Commission will consider asking City Council not to move forward with any new plans to expand the Austin Convention Center, with commission members asking city staff for more information to justify the project.

Staffers gave an update on the expansion plans at this week’s Downtown Commission meeting, outlining the new scope of the project and the timeline for steps Council would have to take such as issuing requests for qualifications and proposals for architects and contractors.

The update was met with questions about the need for the expansion as well as the decision not to execute the entire project as a public-private partnership, which would put all financial responsibilities on private interests.

The commission voted to revisit the agenda item next month, with requests for staff to produce more information about the viability of conventions and events in a post-pandemic economy and an analysis of how convention centers in other cities are operated.

“Why are we supposed to accept these current projections – and now there’s going to be the Moody Center to compete against? I find it a hard pill to swallow given the outlook of conventions: Every magazine I’ve read about conventions suggests it’s an industry in decline,” Commissioner Mike Lavigne said. “I’m wondering why we’re still charging forward even though the environment has changed and we’re basing it on assumptions that were never proven out in the first place.”

City leaders have spent much of the past decade strategizing how to expand the 29-year-old center, which was expanded in 2002 but is seen as lacking enough exhibition, meeting and banquet space to remain competitive. A westward expansion that would have involved reconstructing roughly four city blocks and cost $1.2 billion was approved by Council in 2018 but recently abandoned because of the inability to acquire the needed properties.

The new rough plan involves completely tearing down the facility – in phases or all at once – and adding space through increased height and underground construction.

Council has so far not approved any agreements or studies related to that strategy. The new plan would call for issuing an RFQ for architectural and engineering services this fall, with other proposal and contracting steps continuing at least through next summer.

Commissioner Joel Sher argued with staffers that the city should use the public-private partnership structure for the expansion since the property has no height restrictions or other encumbrances, making it financially attractive for developers.

Convention center Director Trisha Tatro said a portion of the project could eventually be turned over to a PPP, but the desired timeline and cost considerations at play make it necessary for the city to take the lead on the expansion.

“We have a very tight budget for this project and we have needed an expanded convention center for a number of years,” she said. “When we took into account that we own our own land, it was determined that it would be most economical and fastest to redevelop the existing convention center through the (construction manager-at-risk) methodology.”

Lavigne also asked what other convention centers operate at a loss similar to the Austin facility, and pushed for action on a long-discussed proposal to have hotels that benefit from convention center business provide the city money via a self-imposed 1 percent tax that would help fund services for the homeless.

“I didn’t think I’d get this upset about this, but I’m just a little flabbergasted given that it’s post-pandemic and we’re talking about tearing this whole thing down when it’s still a functional building,” he said. “It was like the worst-kept secret in town that nobody was going to sell their land over there. I feel like you all are spinning your wheels and spending our money on things that aren’t making our city better.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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