Pushing for Expansion
Convention Center hopes Council adds wing
The Neal Kocurek Memorial Austin Convention Center is crackling. It's a bright October morning, and much of its space is booked out by Dell World 2015. It's a big event for a big local employer, but less than a month ago the same building hosted over 9,000 dermatologists for the annual gathering for skin care company Rodan + Fields. Between them were SXSW Eco, the Gas Machinery Research Council conference, the Texas Association of School Administrators/Texas Association of School Boards joint conference, and a host of other small to mid-size events. Austin Convention Center Department director Mark Tester said, "We've been one, right after another, right after another, all fall, so a lot of our staff are feeling that Monday-morning tired."
Yet Tester hopes the building will get even busier. As convention destinations go, Austin is a mid-size market, but it's got a packed dance card, filled years in advance. That's a change from a decade ago, when a lack of Downtown hotel rooms meant the center had trouble bidding on big events. Now, with the addition of the JW Marriott, the Westin Austin Downtown, and the Hotel Van Zandt, the city has enough beds, but the convention center itself isn't big enough. Tester calculates that, out of all the events that his office unsuccessfully bids on, over a third bypass Austin simply because the convention center doesn't have the rooms or facilities they need.
That's why he's hoping the city will add a whole new wing to the convention center. The proposal is the end result of a city-commissioner master plan, which developed four options for the cramped facility:
• No change
• Expand east across Red River and Waller Creek
• Expand west, sealing up Trinity Street and adding floor space to the existing building
• Expand west, but keep Trinity open and add a new, separate structure, complete with hotel and raised walkway connections to the main building
The Convention Center management is pushing option four as the most effective and cost-efficient, and is asking Council to put a $400 million bond on the Nov. 2016 ballot. By using the space between San Jacinto and Trinity, from Cesar Chavez to the alley south of the Railyard Condominiums on Fourth Street, they can nearly double the total amount of exhibition space, meeting space, and ballrooms, plus add a hotel, underground parking and loading docks.
The last Council commissioned the master plan because it knew the space crunch was coming. However, the plan is having a rockier time with the new Council's Economic Opportunity Committee. During an Oct. 12 presentation by staff, Council Member Greg Casar was lukewarm to the proposal. More aggressive was CM Ora Houston, who (having previously balked at the planned Downtown County Courthouse) seems to be opposed to any construction project not in her district, and suggested the money go to an East Austin basketball stadium instead.
Sports franchises are a risky business, but conventions are an established part of Austin's economy. Before the current convention center, the city depended on the outdated Lester E. Palmer Auditorium (now site of the Long Center and Palmer Events Center) for large gatherings. Built in 1959, the Palmer had become outmoded by 1989, when construction on its successor began, and incapable of dealing with the technical demands of contemporary events. The convention center isn't quite at that point yet (a major 1999 expansion, plus ongoing remodeling, rejuvenated it), but Tester suggests that the new plan will provide capacity and flexibility, as well as containing mixed use retail and dining space.
This all comes down to logistics. A three-day event is not just a three-day event. There's load-in, and load-out, and that adds time, and if two events run back-to-back, then they have to be able to use the same loading dock. Or say a convention doesn't take over an entire building: For example, SXSW Eco and GMRC ran at the same time, but needed to be separate enough that attendees didn't end up in the wrong room. That's tough to orchestrate, and Austin's success only makes that tougher.
The city is already seeing the consequences in bookings. Take the Wizard World touring pop culture festival, appearing in 21 cities over the next 12 months. All events are three-day weekends – except Austin, where it's only two days, because they couldn't find a three-day gap that worked for them. Like any convention organizer, Wizard World depends on trade show vendors renting floor space, and if the convention center can't provide that space, they don't get the vendors. And if trade shows can't get the vendors because of space or time, they go elsewhere.
For Tester, that's the danger in standing still. The Rodan + Fields event was at the upper limit of the current building's technical and floor space provisions, making similar and repeat bookings tough. Meanwhile, the convention industry is getting more competitive, with Nashville, Denver, and San Antonio all undergoing or planning massive expansions. If they start pulling business away from Austin, that's a blow to hotel taxes, and all the Downtown businesses that depend on visitors.
The big financial plus for Austinites is that the expansion would not depend on local tax dollars; instead, it would be funded out of convention center revenue, and two cents from the hotel occupancy tax paid by attendees and tourists. The convention center has already received an opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton saying that portion of the hotel tax, approved by voters for the 1999 expansion, could be put towards this new structure. During a presentation to the Oct. 13 Council work session, the fact that this lived up to the current mantra of having growth pay for itself won over not only plan backers like Mayor Steve Adler, but also Council's resident fiscal conservatives Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair. But unless the plan gets past the Economic Opportunity Committee – which Troxclair chairs – Tester's staff could be left turning more business away.
The City Council Economic Opportunity Committee next meets on Nov. 9, at 2pm.