Construction crews in San Jose are just weeks away from finalizing a massive expansion of that city's convention center. Officials in Seattle are eyeing property downtown for their center's growth, and expansion projects are either under way or being planned in Anaheim, San Diego and Spokane, Wash.
In an attempt to keep up, convention officials here are close to unveiling plans for the first major renovation of the Sacramento Convention Center in nearly 20 years.
Populous, an international builder of stadiums and convention centers, is expected to complete a design plan for an expanded convention facility by the beginning of September. The goal: to add roughly 40,000 square feet in exhibition and event space to the existing 158,000 square feet at J and 14th streets downtown.
A study commissioned by the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau concluded that the center ranked 14th out of 17 comparable convention facilities on the West Coast in terms of exhibit space and available meeting rooms. With a little extra room, Sacramento could begin to land conventions including lucrative meetings of medical and technology groups that are bypassing the region, officials said.
"If we're going to remain competitive, we better think about doing something," said Tony Giannoni, a Convention and Visitors Bureau board member.
The Sacramento Convention Center was last expanded in 1995, when 84,000 square feet was added. Bonds backed largely by a tax on hotel rooms and convention center revenue funded the $80 million project; those bonds will be paid off in 2021.
Convention officials have not proposed a financing plan for future expansion, but City Manager John Shirey and others have said the work would almost certainly be funded by bonds similar to those that paid for the work in the 1990s. There's no price estimate for the project yet, but it likely would be in the tens of millions of dollars.
An expansion of the facility could involve adding a floor to the Convention Center. It's unlikely that the building would expand outward beyond its current three-block footprint.
Officials also are interested in creating a more direct link between the Convention Center and bordering K Street, perhaps by opening up the street to allow pedestrian and bicycle traffic to pass between the facility and the Community Center Theater.
"What I like about what's being discussed is that they're looking at realistic options as opposed to something that's pie in the sky and can't be done in Sacramento," Shirey said.
Another idea that has been discussed is the construction of a ballroom on top of the neighboring Community Center Theater that could be used by conventioneers and other groups. In May, the City Council voted to dedicate $8.5 million from closed special tax assessment districts toward a Community Center Theater renovation that has been planned for years.
"We're trying to make the convention center and the theater into a single unit," Giannoni said. "The theater needs to be renovated for a lot of reasons, and we're not trying to slow that process down. We're hoping we can add to it."
Mike Testa, a senior vice president with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the aim is to create a convention and theater district at the eastern end of K Street. Entertainment venues and restaurants have filled up several empty storefronts along K Street in recent years, and a new sports arena is planned for the bleak, western end of the thoroughfare.
Other cities that have made significant improvements to convention spaces say they pay economic dividends.
Promoters in San Jose said they are already seeing the benefits of their $120 million expansion project, which was funded by a tax on hotel rooms and is scheduled for completion in September. The 125,000 square feet of new space will result in a 550,000-square-foot convention facility with grand ballrooms and outdoor event space.
Among events already planned for the newly revamped center is a major airline industry convention this fall, said Meghan Horrigan, a spokeswoman with Team San Jose, the city's convention bureau.
Convention officials in Sacramento have promoted expansion as an economic growth opportunity for a city that already benefits from $130 million each year spent by convention attendees.
"This project is about ensuring the health and vitality of a local industry that provides significant revenues to both public and private businesses," said Steve Hammond, president and CEO of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A study by Convention Sports & Leisure International determined that Sacramento could compete against other mid-sized convention markets for new business with a "modest investment" in its facility, said John Kaatz, a principal with the firm.
"Everybody in that region (the West Coast) is looking at investing in their convention centers," Kaatz said. "You don't want to get left behind."