Steinberg urges ‘thinking big’ on Sacramento Convention Center

A proposal before the City Council to renovate the Sacramento Convention Center comes with a $170 million price tag, which officials say is the most the city can afford.
A proposal before the City Council to renovate the Sacramento Convention Center comes with a $170 million price tag, which officials say is the most the city can afford. rbyer@sacbee.com

The Sacramento City Council is expected to approve a major renovation of the aging Community Center Theater on Tuesday, but a plan to expand the nearby Sacramento Convention Center has drawn skepticism from Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg and other critics who say it may aim too low.

Steinberg said in an interview that the plan for the theater on L Street, near the state Capitol, was an “exciting proposal.” But he questioned what he called the limited scope of the convention center plan and the process that went into creating it.

“We must make a wise and visionary decision on the size, scope, location and management of a convention center,” Steinberg wrote in a public letter he sent to council members Monday. “The convention center expansion is widely considered the city’s next large public investment project.”

Steinberg said he supports “thinking big” on the convention center project and called for a 5- to 7-month re-examination of the current plan to add 108,000 square feet of exhibition space, meeting rooms and a new kitchen to the center on J Street.

Not enough analysis had been done on alternative plans that could include a larger project to make the city competitive with markets such as Indianapolis, which has become a magnet for conventions, Steinberg said.

“Sacramento has a unique opportunity to define itself in both message and action as a Destination City,” the mayor-elect wrote.

“We ought to take the appropriate time and consideration and most importantly compare and contrast this lead proposal with any other alternatives the community wants to put forward,” Steinberg said in an interview.

Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council and one of the most vocal supporters of a larger plan, said “this has been a very poorly done process, and it misses all the key points.”

For weeks, City Hall has debated internally how quickly and forcefully to move forward with the convention center project before the new mayor takes office in December.

Officials have said the $170 million convention center proposal is the most the city can afford. Escalating construction costs could balloon the project’s bill by $1.3 million for each month the city delays, according to a staff report.

“The plan is something that collectively this community has been working on for five years,” said Steve Hammond, president and CEO of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s solid. It’s smart growth, and it’s something that this city can finance.”

Hammond said he understood and agreed with Steinberg’s desire to weigh in on the convention center project. But he said the limited expansion of the convention center was also based on the lack of hotel rooms near the downtown facility, creating a barrier to the size of conventions the city can accommodate.

“To build something bigger than what we have planned today, frankly, would be irresponsible because we don’t have the hotel rooms or infrastructure to support it,” Hammond said.

The proposal on the agenda for Tuesday night was originally intended to push the limited expansion plan forward more quickly, according to City Hall insiders. Changes to what the council would vote on were made to accommodate Steinberg’s concerns about going ahead with a plan that will have, as Steinberg said in his letter, “significant fiscal and economic development implications for my tenure as Mayor.”

Steinberg said he wants to examine not just the size of any renovation, but its larger impact on the city and its place in a broader vision he has for revitalizing the waterfront and bringing greater resources to the technology and creative sectors, which he sees as future drivers of job growth.

In his letter, Steinberg outlined an agenda for his early days in office that would advance those three areas to promote Sacramento as a destination for conventions and companies. Last week, Steinberg traveled to the Bay Area to promote Sacramento as a location for Silicon Valley companies that were considering relocating to cities such as Austin, Texas.

Steinberg said that while he has been “circumspect” about weighing in on city business before taking office, the convention center plan has raised “real questions ... about are we maximizing our potential?”

City Councilman Steve Hansen said that he supported the mayor-elect weighing in on the project but, he said, “debate that drags on too long can be counterproductive.” Hansen wants to move Tuesday night’s proposal forward and said it doesn’t lock the city into the limited expansion plan for the convention center.

“I think we’ve got a prudent path forward, and we just need to continue the discussion,” Hansen said.

Tuesday’s vote would allow the city to expand a contract with architectural firm Populous to finish a concept for the first phase of a renovation for the convention center. Hammond said the renovation is needed to allow the center to compete with West Coast rivals including Long Beach and San Jose.

A second phase of construction could expand it further if funds are found at a later date, he said. That secondary retrofit could be vertical, adding meeting rooms and other space onto the convention center’s current footprint. Hammond said that the initial plan would include $5 million in structural and foundation work to allow for that vertical expansion.

Tuesday’s vote would also allow design work on Community Center Theater to move forward, including plans to incorporate a retrofit of Memorial Auditorium into the performing-arts plan.

Under the proposal, the auditorium, built in 1926, would receive $16.2 million in upgrades so that it can be used as a temporary venue for one season while interior construction takes place at the community theater. The money would be used for new seats and technical upgrades for improved acoustics and lighting.

It would include approval to allow the city to ask for proposals from private companies to manage Memorial Auditorium.

Community Center Theater would begin an $83.4 million update in the fall of 2018. It would include 41,000 square feet of new construction that would replace seats and upgrade acoustics as well as overhaul the lobby, box office and dressing rooms.

It would also make the space comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“This is headed in the right direction,” Steinberg said. “I want to help ensure that all decisions, especially the big decisions, are made in a way where the public process is clear and the choices are clear and … that the public and the stakeholders have confidence.”

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