San Diego Business Journal

In just less than a year, the first phase of the San Diego Convention Center's expansion is scheduled to be completed.

While all concerned are eager to roll out the red carpet and welcome a new wave of conventioneers in September 2001, the bigger, better and brand new Convention Center is especially good news to the Gaslamp Quarter.

Of course, the convention center as it stands now has had an incredibly positive effect on the surrounding area. Before the Convention Center, revitalization of the Gaslamp Quarter was somewhat of an iffy proposition.

The most prominent question being, would the Gaslamp, previously a blighted area, attract enough patrons and businesses to create a stable economic environment?

Before completion of phase one of the Convention Center, many nearby businesses came and then all too often closed up shop. Upon completion, the Convention Center provided an anchor for the Gaslamp, allowing those pioneering businesses to thrive and prosper. Soon the Gaslamp was able to boast of dozens of restaurants, clubs and specialty retail shops that were open ... and remaining open for businesses.

Not since the days of Alonzo Horton had the Gaslamp Quarter been subject to such rapid, intense and dramatic growth. The early 1990s saw tremendous strides in the economic viability of an area mostly forsaken for decades. It appeared that nothing but good times lay ahead. The good times were about to get even better. The San Diego Convention Center was just what the doctor ordered.

- An American-Style Vision For Change

The San Diego visionaries of the 1960s and '70s were finally seeing that a stroll up the avenue was not just the pastime of an old-fashioned American musical. Fifth Avenue and the surrounding area were once again reclaiming their glory. Blighted, forgotten and neglected, the heart of San Diego was joyously being rediscovered by its citizens, merchants, entrepreneurs, developers, tourists, politicians, and thanks to the Convention Center, those highly coveted conventioneers.

Complete with a "Hello my name is ..." tag stuck on their lapels, hearty appetites and open wallets, the convention troops marched from the bay to the avenues of the Gaslamp and quietly invaded our fair city. We surrendered without a fight. And we've been willingly giving in ever since.

"So we've got to give credit where credit is due. An important element of Downtown's economic success, and specifically that of the Gaslamp Quarter, is due in large part to the Convention Center," said Teresa McTighe, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association. "It has been responsible for bringing a steady flow of visitors to San Diego on a regular and consistent basis to eat, shop and be entertained in San Diego's historic 16 & #733; city blocks."

The Convention Center also attracts thousands of San Diegans with the annual Boat Show, HomeShow and ComicCon. That's just as a result of the first phase of the Convention Center.

With phase two, the Convention Center will be responsible for an even greater economic boon to the heart of the city.

"The expansion will allow the Convention Center to accommodate more medium-sized gatherings as well as much larger conventions than it currently allows. The domino effect almost goes without saying," said Bill Keller, chairman of the Gaslamp Quarter Association for 2000-2001. "More people means more business, more hotels, restaurants, shops and entertainment venues."

- Downtown Is More Attractive

But rest assured, the Convention Center expansion is not only for the benefit of visitors. The Downtown redevelopment spurred by the Convention Center is resulting in a Downtown suitable for the natives as well.

Location, location, location. Increasingly, Downtown San Diego is becoming the place to be for all sorts of reasons, most notably to live. Downtown can now be referred to as 7-24. For San Diegans to embrace one of their oldest and at the same time newest neighborhoods, it could not remain simply a tourist destination. Nor could it be just a place where we worked nine to five.

Was a mad dash to the suburbs really how some of us wanted to spend our evenings? Many said no. Developers took their cue and apartments, lofts and condominiums now fit quite nicely into the landscape of Downtown with more on the way. Just take a look at all the construction under way in the Marina District adjacent to the Gaslamp. At the moment, there are more than 4,000 residential units under way or in the pipeline Downtown.

Currently, the lay of the land leading from the Convention Center causes conventioneers to head north on First Avenue. With the completion of the expansion, this will all change.

"By next autumn, pedestrians will naturally head north on Fifth Avenue leading even more people into the thriving Gaslamp Quarter," McTighe said.

"Merchants definitely are anticipating even more business during the day as people move back and forth between the Convention Center, their hotels and restaurants."

- City Earning A Good Reputation

While San Diego has always been known for its many beaches, exceptional climate, SeaWorld San Diego and its world-class San Diego Zoo, among other attractions, the city is now earning an impressive national and international reputation as an ideal convention destination. In fact, this is the second year in a row the San Diego Convention Center has been named one of the world's top three convention facilities by Europe's largest meetings and industry trade publications. The San Diego Convention Center was the only United States conference facility named and will share the honor with Exhibition Centre and Paris' C.I.D. Deauville Convention Center.

Berkman is general partner of Fio's Cucina Italiana and CEO and president of Berkman Communications in San Diego.