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PAC seeks clarity, cost breakdowns for $1.6B convention center expansion

Thursday, June 8, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

The political action committee co-founded by a former member of the Downtown Commission wants the mayor and City Council to answer questions about the planned expansion of the Austin Convention Center, it announced in a news release last week.

Laura Cantu-Templeton, co-founder of the City Accountability Project PAC, has submitted 10 questions to all 11 members of Council. The PAC is asking for a third-party review of the expansion project, as well as a public vote to spend an estimated $1.6 billion in Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues on the four-year project.

Cantu-Templeton often questioned the need for the expansion while she was a member of the Downtown Commission. She was removed from that body by Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who appointed her. Kelly saw the creation of the PAC as a conflict of interest. Formed in 2021, the City Accountability Project worked to support City Council candidates Linda Guerrero, Aaron Webman and Richard Smith in their unsuccessful 2022 bids.

The questions submitted to Council include a request for current cost and revenue projections for the facility, a timeline and detailed briefing on the construction plan, an estimate of annual operational costs for the expanded convention center, and a detailed breakdown of the repayment schedule for the center’s previous expansion, as well as the planned work.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Cantu-Templeton said it’s unlikely City Council would call for a public vote to authorize the debt that is planned to be backed by hotel taxes.

“The end goal is to get some transparency from City Council. We would like answers to the 10 questions that we posed to every one of them, including the mayor and the city manager,” she told the Monitor. “They’re very reasonable questions about how they’re going to pay for the convention center and things like how many people have attended the convention center in the last five years. We can’t get answers to anything.”

The expansion had been in discussion for years before City Council opted to move forward in 2018. That resulted in a petition and eventual election, which was unsuccessful, that would have required public approval for substantial expenditures of hotel tax money to fund capital projects related to the convention center.

In the years since, Cantu-Templeton and other critics of the expansion have questioned the need for enlarging the facility. Local hotel and tourism boosters argue the convention center routinely loses out on bids for large convention and event bookings because it lacks the amount of exhibit halls and other spaces needed to attract large national bookings.

“People don’t come to Austin for trade shows. They go to Las Vegas or Orlando for that,” said Cantu-Templeton. Enlisting South by Southwest in a public-private partnership to fund the expansion was one scenario that might make more financial sense, she said.

“Those dollars can be used for tourism downtown and could go to public safety, because downtown is kind of a scary place to go to right now. And definitely more dollars should be funneled to artists and musicians, who really bring in a lot of tourism to the city of Austin,” she said.

The city is in the process of preparing the request for proposals for engineering and design work on the expansion, which would be the first major financial commitment. One holdup to the project’s advancement is the need to restructure the bond debt related to the city-owned Hilton Austin hotel that is managed by Austin Convention Enterprises. The debt agreement for the Hilton includes language that an extended closure of the convention center, a major source of business for the Hilton, would trigger a default on the bonds issued to build the hotel.

Kelly told the Monitor she met with Cantu-Templeton in late April to discuss her concerns and questions about the convention center. She plans to write memos to the city manager and other related staff soon, seeking the information requested.

“One of the most top-of-mind questions for me would certainly be which conventions that the city is missing out on because we don’t have enough space,” Kelly said. “I don’t know to what extent we are missing out on conventions and visitor business, and so that’s something that I’d be curious to know. All of her questions would definitely help me, once I find out the information, form a more informed decision on whether or not we need to have the expansion done.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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