Why it’s smart to take a broader look at bigger Sacramento Convention Center

Mayor Darrell Steinberg attends his first City Council meeting on Jan. 5.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg attends his first City Council meeting on Jan. 5. aseng@sacbee.com

The city delayed a final decision on expanding the Sacramento Convention Center at the behest of Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who urged “thinking big” on a potentially larger project.

On Wednesday, the new mayor broadened the debate further – to think beyond the convention center to a fuller range of possible amenities to make Sacramento a true destination.

It’s a smart move.

Before the city spends $170 million – money borrowed against hotel taxes – to expand the convention center, officials must make sure the project is the right size to make it more competitive. But they must also ensure the money is being used in the best way to achieve the ultimate goal – to attract more visitors who fill hotel rooms, eat at restaurants and pay taxes.

In his speech to the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, Steinberg mentioned several possible attractions: an aquarium, an observation deck, a public market. All would need to be thoroughly vetted, of course. The mayor also called for capitalizing much more on the riverfront, and mentioned putting a planetarium back into the Powerhouse Science Center project. All of these ideas are unlikely to get done without more public-private partnerships that Steinberg wants.

At the same time, the mayor made clear he supports – and the city urgently needs – a bigger convention center. The current facility can’t hold more than one large meeting at once, he noted.

The working plan calls for adding 108,000 square feet of exhibit space to the center on J Street, which would nearly double contiguous space. Steve Hammond, president and CEO of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, stands behind that proposal. But some business leaders are urging the city to consider a larger center, possibly at a different site.

Steinberg’s team stresses that he isn’t locked into a smaller expansion if more money can be found.

The discussion continues Thursday with the first in a series of five sessions in the next two months with stakeholders. The meetings will be led by Steinberg and will be open to the public. That’s noteworthy, since in recent years, too many major issues were discussed in private City Council committee meetings.

Steinberg says Sacramento can end up with a convention center that is “both affordable and unique.” That should be the goal, and it’s worth a little more deliberation to get there.