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Tuesday, Jul 23, 2024
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Convention Center’s New CEO Ready to Talk

Prospects for an expansion of the San Diego Convention Center — contiguous, noncontiguous or none of the above — are likely to remain among much-debated city priorities in an election year filled with heated talk over possible hotel tax hikes and a proposed downtown football stadium.

For his part, the new president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corp., which oversees the waterfront facility, says he’s undaunted by the prospect of starting his tenure in the midst of civic controversy.

“Every community deals with hot-button issues,” said Clifford Rippetoe, who emphasized during a recent interview at his office that he prefers to be called “Rip.”

Rippetoe started his new job in mid-April, appointed by the center’s executive board following a nationwide search for the successor to Carol Wallace, who retired at the end of 2015.

Most recently, Rippetoe served as president and CEO of the Kentucky State Fair Board, a state-supervised entity based in Louisville that oversees the Kentucky Exposition Center, the nation’s sixth-largest convention center, along with Freedom Hall, Broadbent Arena and the Kentucky International Convention Center.

The Kentucky fair board oversees major events including the Kentucky State Fair and the North American International Livestock Expo. In the past two years, it also dealt with matters including preparations for an upcoming $180 million expansion and renovation of the International Convention Center in downtown Louisville.

Rippetoe said “hot button” matters he encountered in his last job included dealing with the aftermath of the 2010 closure of the Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom amusement park, which had fallen into disrepair and decline even before a bankruptcy filing by Six Flags’ corporate parent, Premier Parks.

At the time, Rippetoe said, there was much community debate over how to redevelop or reposition the property to help local tourism, possibly by bringing in new hotels. Ultimately, the amusement park was acquired and upgraded by another investment group and operates today as a revived Kentucky Kingdom.

‘Change of Venue’

More recently, Rippetoe and his staff dealt with vocal debate over how to prepare the downtown Louisville convention center for its renovation, which ultimately involved rescheduling and relocating events so that the center could remain closed for the upcoming two-year project.

Also, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, there was controversy — not of Rippetoe’s making — when that state’s Gov. Steve Beshear last year ordered an expansion of the Fair Board from 15 to 21 members. That included giving the Fair Board president — Rippetoe — the additional jobs of general manager and chairman of the executive committee of the International Livestock Expo, among Kentucky’s largest annual events, with an economic impact of $18 million over 10 days.

The governor’s moves upset members of the state’s powerful livestock breeding industry, but were supported by others who said fair board and livestock expo leadership needed to include representation from other growing industries, including tourism and agribusiness.

Making Contiguous-Expansion Case

Rippetoe said his approach to public disagreement primarily involves maintaining transparency with the public, with an eye toward creating consensus. Starting later this year in San Diego, he plans to schedule a series of public town-hall-style meetings where he will seek to make the case — previously stated by the convention center’s executive board — that the facility would benefit most from a proposed contiguous expansion of the existing building on Harbor Drive.

An alternative — noncontiguous event space that would be part of a hybrid convention and stadium facility across the street — is supported by the San Diego Chargers and also by leaders of a citizens’ coalition, both of which are seeking separate voter approvals in November for a hotel tax hike that could support such a project.

Rippetoe stands by the convention center board’s previous stance, based on input from organizers of large conventions that the San Diego center is seeking to attract and retain — including the stalwart Comic-Con International — who have said they prefer to have all of their programs centered in one site.

Outside of the expansion issue, Rippetoe said he will need to get the public behind efforts to address the current convention center’s basic maintenance and repair needs, including refurbishing the facility’s iconic but fraying exterior sails. Consultants have suggested programs such as corporate naming rights and sponsorships, but Rippetoe said officials would need to proceed cautiously if that route is chosen.

Unlike sports arenas, where there are generally one or two types of events that would attract large sponsors that in turn would not offend most customers, the San Diego Convention Center needs to be cognizant of the corporate needs of firms and professional organizations in numerous industries.

For instance, Rippetoe said organizers of medical industry conventions — consistently among the largest gatherings held annually in San Diego — might not be comfortable holding events in a space sponsored by makers of alcoholic beverages or sugary soft drinks.

The amiable Oklahoma native, 55, and his wife Leah have two grown children and six grandchildren. They are regular churchgoers and have made community involvement a priority in all of the cities along Rippetoe’s career path, which has brought him to San Diego after nearly 30 years involved in convention and event facilities management.

Prior to his Kentucky tenure, he worked as a contract facilities director at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and also ran his own Nevada consulting business dealing with design and management of conventions and events spaces.

Olympic Mettle

He also previously served in executive posts at the Salt Palace Convention Center and the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau in Utah. His bureau work included working as a liaison with the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee, assisting with fundraising and sponsor relationships for the 2002 Winter Olympics — and crossing paths with La Jolla resident and then future GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Going forward in San Diego, Rippetoe said he will seek to keep the convention center not only competitive with rival cities like Los Angeles and Anaheim, but also up-to-date to meet the ever-changing, mobile-enhanced technology needs of convention organizers.

Convention planners not only want to keep gatherings cost effective — using lighter, sustainable materials to make booths and meeting spaces easy to assemble and tear down — but also tech-enabled to allow real-time way-finding, program updates communication among event-goers. The city’s quest for repeat convention bookings is always at stake.

“After all, we are in the experience business,” Rippetoe said.

San Diego Convention Center Corp. is a not-for-profit public benefit corporation created by the city of San Diego to manage, market and operate the 2.6 million square foot downtown facility.

Operators said the center, which opened in 1989 and has a current annual budget of approximately $36 million, delivered a regional economic impact of $1.06 billion in fiscal year 2015, including $624.7 million in direct attendee spending.

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