How much does 400,000 extra square feet of floor space matter?
Just ask the seven of eight San Diego City Council members who voted to move ahead with the $520 million expansion of the Convention Center. David Alvarez, representing City Council District 8, was the dissenting vote.
The seven believe expansion of the bay front meeting facility is critical to the health and welfare of a regional economy increasingly reliant on out-of-town visitors to offset cutbacks in defense and the military and a slowdown in manufacturing.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said that each year the city loses potential business because the convention center space is inadequate.
“That’s hundreds of millions of dollars and a lot of jobs that are lost each year to other cities with larger facilities,” he said.
Despite having passed muster with council, the project still faces a court challenge over whether or not a proposed hotel surcharge tax that would help pay for the expansion is legal, and city officials have to obtain approvals from state regulatory agencies, most importantly the California Coastal Commission.
Thus, the start date for construction is a big unknown.
A 2017 Goal
Originally, officials had hoped to begin construction in 2013 with completion in 2016.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith says the most recent 2017 completion estimate is optimistic, and said it should only be considered a “goal.”
And that’s where uncertainties abound.
The sense of urgency revolves around meeting the future needs of Comic-Con, which started out in 1970 as a venue to trade comic books but has since morphed into a four-day Hollywood-fueled extravaganza of more than 125,000 visitors.
Comic-Con outgrew the convention center’s 525,000 square feet years ago, and has been ardently courted by other cities with larger meeting facilities, such as Anaheim, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
The East County nonprofit has complained about constraints placed on its show by the limitations of the existing center, though they signed a three-year extension with the city earlier this year that expires in 2015.
“When we agreed to stay on until 2015, we knew the expansion wouldn’t happen,” said Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer. “So, we have been really, really trying to make the best of a challenging situation.”
A Limit to Sentimentality
Miro Copic, a marketing lecturer at San Diego State University who has attended Comic-Con as the chief marketing officer for a private games company, said the expansion is critical, as is the next round of contract negotiations between the two.
“We got it in the past for pulling out all the stops, and showing that we’re committed, and for sentimental reasons,” Copic said. “However, if Comic-Con continues the way it is, they’re going to have to make some very hard dollars and cents decisions in the next renewal rounds.”
“If we can’t support Comic-Con with our infrastructure, our chances of winning another chance are going to be low,” Copic added.
Meanwhile, convention center officials have the designer and builder in place.
A partnership consisting of Phoenix, Ariz.-based Hunt Construction Group and Washington, D.C.-based Clark Construction Group has teamed up with the Denver-based Fentress Architects to come up with an innovative design that allows for maximum expansion at minimum cost.
San Diego is familiar territory for Hunt, which built the landmark San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina next door to the existing convention center.
And like Hunt, Clark is a familiar name around town, having been the lead general contractor behind the $300 million construction of East Village’s Petco Park, completed in 2004.
Exhibit Halls and Hotel Rooms
Fentress’ design adds 220,000 square feet of exhibit hall space to the convention center, plus 101,500 square feet of meeting rooms and another 78,500 square feet of ballroom space.
The project would also add 500 rooms to the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel, while creating a 5-acre bay front park in the form of fields and gardens placed on the roof of the expanded center.
City and convention center officials favored the design over proposals submitted by 14 other competitors.
Expansion is a key civic project for City Hall.
The city has completed impact studies that estimate that the finished project will create close to 7,000 new jobs and add another $700 million to the region’s economy, which is new money in addition to the current impact of $1.3 billion created by the center.
Alan Gin, an associate professor of economics at the University of San Diego, said the center is important to tourism, the third largest sector in the region.
He noted that the sector would continue to “retain its importance, even if the center could not be expanded.”
But he said the expansion “would definitely help, especially in terms of building up that business to business segment of the tourism sector.
“It not only helps Comic-Con, but other conventions the city can’t now attract,” he said.
“We think expansion would be good for the city, especially in terms of attracting bigger shows and conventions and also in terms of being able to handle multiple smaller shows,” said Glanzer, the Comic-Con spokesman. “It could be very positive for the city.”