Saturday, December 20, 2008

San Antonio Thinks Obama May Pay for Convention Center Expansion

The headline from the San Antonio Times reads - Tourism Industry Sees Opportunity. The story has landed Web presence which in turn promotes the meeting venue. I wonder how many hits the facility has gotten on their Website? I wonder if they even track it! The proposed expansion of the Convention Center is by far the costliest project on the city's preliminary wish list for funding under President-elect Barack Obama's stimulus package.

The idea has been around for more than a year — not that it has generated a lot of buzz.

At $200 million, it dwarfs most of the other 58 projects on the list that City Manager Sheryl Sculley distributed to City Council members Wednesday.

Hospitality industry leaders approached Sculley and other city officials about looking into a potential expansion about a year and a half ago, according to Milton Guess, a member of the San Antonio Area Tourism Council.

“We felt like we were getting a little bit behind the times, as far as meeting space,” Guess said. “From the hospitality industry's viewpoint, we know we need an expansion.”

But until this week, the proposal had garnered little public attention — or much attention from the council, for that matter.

Beyond a briefing last March, Mayor Phil Hardberger doesn't recall the council discussing the potential additions. “I'm not ready to say whether that would be a high priority or a low priority, because I don't know enough about it,” he said.

Council members are expected to begin vetting the list of projects — the costs of which total $1.1 billion — early next month before finalizing it Jan. 15 or Jan. 29. The city's draft list also includes a $75 million expansion and modernization of the Central Library, including a literary arts center with a 500-seat auditorium.

After checking with several construction companies Friday, Doug McMurry, executive vice president of the San Antonio Chapter of the Associated General Contractors, said the local industry wasn't exactly ablaze with talk about the potential plan.

“If there was a $200 million expansion plan, it was a very well-kept secret,” McMurry said.

The project would add about 100,000 square feet of exhibit space and 50,000 square feet of meeting space to the Convention Center, and maybe a parking garage.

In April 2007, the city hired Minnesota-based Conventions Sports & Leisure International for a feasibility study. On March 5, a CSL representative told the council that San Antonio is losing convention business because the facility is too small to host multiple events at the same time.

If the city moved ahead with an expansion, the study said, it could add 100,000 square feet of multi-use space by 2012, at a cost of $150 million to $200 million. A second phase could be completed by 2018.
“We're running at capacity today, and when you're running at capacity you should look at expansion,” said Henry Feldman, chairman of the tourism council.

Bruce Walker, president of hotel consulting firm Source Strategies, is a skeptic when it comes to talk about expanding the Convention Center, regardless of whether federal funds are available. He said the city would be better off making investments geared toward tourists, because they represent bigger business for San Antonio than conventioneers.

As far as Obama's plan to kick-start the economy through a program of heavy federal spending, cities so far have had little go on as they try to figure out which projects should get funded.

Obama has signaled that the stimulus package could reach $850 billion, with some of the money dedicated to lower- and middle-class tax cuts and further relief for the unemployed. And it's Congress' first order of business when it returns from a holiday break. The program's cornerstone will be infrastructure projects that could get under way quickly to jolt the economy in the short term.

If the city pursued the expansion without stimulus funds, it would have to rely on hotel occupancy tax revenue.

“It's always a concern whether the hotel tax is bringing in enough revenue to do that,” Guess said.

McMurry questions whether an expansion would meet that criteria.
“A briefing by a consultant is a long way from a shovel-ready project,” he said.

But Andrew Smith, the city's intergovernmental relations director, said the project could break ground soon — if the city is allowed to hire a contractor to both design and build the expansion.

“It would save us a step in the process,” Smith said. And if the city could do that, “we'd put all the resources behind this to make it happen. ... There's so much up in the air right now, but if there's an opportunity, we want to be ready for it.”

But he also said the council will decide whether the project makes the final list, or how it's prioritized if it does.

On that front, mayoral candidate Trish DeBerry-Mejia on Friday called for assembling a task force — made up of educators, health care professional and renewable energy and nonprofit representatives — to sort through potential stimulus projects.

“The bulk will be infrastructure projects,” she said. “But if we're talking about more computers in the classroom or if we're talking a retrofit in (San Antonio ISD) classrooms to make them more energy efficient, I think there are some projects that can be identified.”

Despite the short time frame — the city's federal lobbyists recommend having a list finalized by early February — Hardberger said he plans to ask council members if they favor establishing a task force.

Marketing Tip - Because this story has been put on the Internet, it will reach potential new clients for San Antonio.

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