A Bigger, Better Convention Center

The newly expanded Austin Convention Center
The newly expanded Austin Convention Center (Photo By John Anderson)

Perhaps Daryl Slusher spoke for everyone in his remarks at the Austin Convention Center ribbon-cutting Saturday: "I know this has been a well-managed project, because I just spent seven months on the campaign trail, and nobody mentioned it once." As the city celebrated the Center's new, $110-million-plus expansion -- with bands, balloons, and souvenir travel cups emblazoned "Bigger is better!" -- it also rejoiced that "Convention Center" was no longer a fightin' phrase in City Hall circles. At least not as much.

When the Center originally opened its doors on July 4, 1992, it marked the end of 20 years of battles, punctuated by several controversial ballot measures and hordes of angry activists, over whether we should have a convention center at all and, if so, where it should be located. The expansion bonds passed in 1998 were part of a package that also included money for water-quality lands, representing a truce of sorts between enviros and downtown boosters. "This project shows what we can do when we work together," said Slusher, recounting this history to the applauding crowd.

Nearly a decade down the road, even hardened Center critics (like us) can concede that the big box has been a hit: more than three million attendees, including nearly a million conventioneers, attending 1,500 events, including 321 conventions. (Conventions are the big prize, of course, since they bring out-of-towners who leave behind their money, including sales and bed tax.) Projections by the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, the private nonprofit that markets events at the Center (which is city-owned and operated), say the expansion -- which cost nearly twice as much as the original facility -- will double not only the Center's size but its economic impact, eventually bringing in $250 million to the local economy.

The key word is "eventually," because (as was also the case in 1992) while the ribbons are cut and the opening was grand, the project isn't really finished yet. Aside from the obvious finishing touches (like a coat of interior paint) that the new expansion, with its multistory sheer glass facade facing Fourth Street, still needs, the deal won't really be done until the Austin Hilton Convention Center Hotel across the street is complete, which won't be for another 18 months. Many of the bigger statewide and national conventions that couldn't fit in the old Center also need the Hilton's 800 hotel rooms, which will bring the total downtown bed count up to proper convention-destination levels. Likewise, the Center's parking garage, which was supposed to be built by the hotel (until that idea fell through), is still in limbo.

"Most events that need all of the new space are booked from 2004 onwards," says Convention Center Director Robert Hodge, "because they also need the hotel." (Booking years in advance is standard practice in the meeting-and-convention business, so it's not clear if the Center has lost bookings because the hotel isn't yet ready.) "But we can now easily do two or three smaller events at once." Hodge adds that the bevy of national meeting planners invited to town for the grand opening "are all impressed. We've got a lot to be proud of. ... It's been a great party. They just happened to be here when we threw it."

On top of being a party, the weekend also felt like a pep rally for a hospitality and entertainment industry that's been doubly battered by economic hard times and post-Sept. 11 jitters, an industry that City Hall has slowly recognized as important to downtown and the city. As is the case all over Texas, bed tax revenues that help defray the Center's operating and debt-service costs have slid way down from their late-Nineties peaks, and the lack of out-of-towners partying on Sixth Street and the Warehouse District has done its part to depress Austin's sales tax collections.

Back when boosters of bygone days talked about the Convention Center as an economic engine, many Austinites weren't sure exactly what that meant. Now they know. "This project represents jobs and economic opportunity," remarked Council Member Danny Thomas at the ribbon-cutting. "Let this be an example to the world that we can come back."

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