A Sacramento aquarium? Steinberg wants to divert convention center expansion money to other projects

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaks at Broadway Coffee in Oak Park on Wednesday, December 14, 2016.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg speaks at Broadway Coffee in Oak Park on Wednesday, December 14, 2016. rbenton@sacbee.com

Speaking at his first State of the Downtown address Wednesday, Darrell Steinberg called for the city to rethink a planned $170 million revamp of the convention center and instead use some of that money for “iconic” projects aimed at increasing the city’s appeal for tourists and residents.

Steinberg told a business crowd gathered at Memorial Auditorium that a bigger convention center alone wouldn’t draw the large-scale conventions the city needs to spur greater economic growth, including construction of new hotels to increase the traveler taxes that in turn fund projects.

He encouraged planners instead to “step back” and “remember that our task is not just to attract people to Sacramento for a single purpose ... our opportunity is to make our city and our region an essential experience for tourists and people who live in our city.”

He floated the ideas of a world-class aquarium, a public market, a “grand urban park” or a plaza with an outdoor movie screen between the convention center and the Community Center Theater. The idea for an aquarium is not new: It was first suggested in the mid-1990s by the late Mayor Joe Serna Jr. A decade later, developer Darius Anderson wanted to build one on city-owned land along Capitol Mall. Steinberg also singled out the riverfront Powerhouse Science Center project, which has long struggled to find funds, and asked the crowd to envision what it would mean to have a “nationally recognized education science center.”

Those types of “amenity” projects, Steinberg said, could help the city solve the “conundrum of the waterfront,” and have a “direct and substantial relationship to increasing the number of people who visit.”

“Let us be honest, let us acknowledge that even with our momentum, we do not yet have enough iconic attractions in our downtown,” said Steinberg.

Steinberg said while he supported an expansion of the convention center, he would like to see its price tag slashed so that some of those public funds could be tapped to pay for crowd-pleasing projects. He also suggested that private money could be used in partnership with public financing.

Steve Hammond, president and CEO of Visit Sacramento, said his staff had been meeting with the mayor and they were “on the same page.” Hammond said “adjustments” would have to be made to the current convention center proposal if funds were diverted and that he expected more “clarity” on the mayor’s vision in coming weeks as city hall presented details.

The mayor’s message to make Sacramento a “destination city” was one he’s given before, but without the direct call to lower the convention center budget.

In October, before he took office, the City Council approved a major renovation of the aging Community Center Theater and moved forward with a first stage of design plans for a 108,000-square-foot expansion of the convention center, including more exhibition space, meeting rooms and a new kitchen for the J Street facility.

At that time, Steinberg wrote a public letter to the council urging them to “think big” on the convention center, and called for a re-examination of the plan.

Steinberg’s call to revamp a plan that was near approval caused some contention within the business and economic development community. The city argued in October that $170 million was the most it could afford to spend on the convention center and that expanding as much as possible was necessary to grow revenue. A city staff report cautioned that the project’s final bill could balloon by $1.3 million by every month it was delayed.

The project would be funded with bonds backed by the city’s 12 percent transient occupancy tax, which is expected to raise $230 million – money that would also be used for the Community Center Theater and an upgrade of Memorial Auditorium. Those three projects together currently have a total projected cost of $270 million. State loans, money saved from closing the facilities during renovations and other city funds would make up the rest.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa