Soapbox

Sacramento Convention Center must expand to survive

Nelson Vails, a silver medalist from the 1984 Olympics, signs a poster for fans during the North American Handmade Bike Show at the Sacramento Convention Center in February.
Nelson Vails, a silver medalist from the 1984 Olympics, signs a poster for fans during the North American Handmade Bike Show at the Sacramento Convention Center in February. Special to The Bee

The Sacramento Convention Center is one of the least understood and appreciated assets owned by the city.

First built in 1973 and last renovated in 1996, it is a major economic driver, attracting visitors for conventions and trade shows. These visitors stay in downtown hotels, generate more than $26 million a year in occupancy taxes and spend millions more at restaurants, stores and other small businesses.

Because the city has not made a major investment in the center in two decades, its “sellable space” (exhibit halls, ballrooms and meeting rooms) has fallen behind our competitors.

The good news is that the city is poised to expand the Convention Center with an ambitious, yet achievable plan estimated to cost $170 million for the first phase. On Tuesday, the City Council will hear a proposal from city staff and internationally recognized consultants on expanding the center, as well as renovating the Community Center Theater and Memorial Auditorium.

We must move quickly or Sacramento will be at risk of losing existing convention business and interest from potential hotel developers. Already, major conventions have made it clear that the center no longer meets their needs. Moreover, Sacramento isn’t considered by potential new clients due to lack of flexible space.

In addition to lost business, any significant delay would lead to millions of dollars in additional construction costs.

Some call for a much larger expansion, but that approach doesn’t represent smart growth. What we need is a plan that gets the Convention Center to the next level while setting the foundation for further expansion as dictated by real market demand. The plan must also make financial sense, based on projected increases in hotel tax revenue.

The idea of “build it and they will come” is simply untrue on convention center expansions and related hotel development. The local hotel industry, as well as internationally respected industry consultants, believes the city’s staff has the right approach.

We invite participation by Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg to help bring the debate to a close. But with other California cities and competitive markets rapidly unveiling expanded convention centers, time is quickly running out.

The sooner the City Council moves this process forward, the sooner we can generate more hotel revenue, attract investment to develop one or more new full-service hotels, create new jobs in the hospitality industry and generate more tourism-related business for our region.

Tourism business is not only critical for the economic future of Sacramento, but also is vital to bringing more of the world to experience our unique and wonderful city.

Scott VandenBerg is general manager of the Hyatt Regency and president of the Sacramento Hotel Association. He can be contacted at scott.vandenberg@hyatt.com.

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