Foon Rhee

Is it smart to shut down Sacramento Convention Center during makeover?

The City Council debates Tuesday whether to completely close the Sacramento Convention Center during its renovation.
The City Council debates Tuesday whether to completely close the Sacramento Convention Center during its renovation. Sacramento Bee file

There’s no doubt the Sacramento Convention Center badly needs a makeover to keep attracting visitors who put cash in downtown bars, hotels and restaurants.

But does it make sense to completely shut it down for 16 months during construction?


At first, I was skeptical. But after talking to supporters and thinking about it some more, it’s not as head-scratching as it may seem. Maybe closing the center entirely is a better option than prolonging the disruption to keep the center partly open.

The decision will be made by the City Council, which will debate the issue on Tuesday. City officials say the full closure would shorten construction from 34 months to 24 months and shave $4 million off the cost, projected at between $90 million and $125 million.

The updated plan also calls for building a ballroom now, instead of in a second phase – a change that could save the city another $15 million or more – if local hotels help pay for it. The renovation also would add exhibit space, meeting rooms, a new kitchen and lobbies so that the center would have less down time between conventions.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who pushed for a slimmed-down expansion to free up money for other tourist destination projects, supports the accelerated schedule.

There is no ideal solution to the construction, says Mike Testa, president and CEO of Visit Sacramento, which books events in the center. But after talking to major customers and officials in other cities that recently expanded their convention halls, the conclusion was that faster completion would mean less lost business, he said.

Under the current timetable, construction would start in spring 2018 and end in late fall 2020. Under the new schedule, some secondary work would not begin until January 2019. The center would close in July 2019 and reopen for business in November 2020.

Testa likens the choice to ripping off a Band-Aid: “It’s going to hurt either way, but getting to the end goal faster allows the benefits to be realized sooner.”

Just how painful depends on how many events the center loses. Testa says Visit Sacramento is pushing for the heavy construction not to begin until July 2019 because several major conventions are scheduled for the first half of that year.

Avoiding pain also depends on making a smooth transition to other venues for the 50-plus events scheduled during the construction. Testa says he is close to deals with three big clients to move their conventions.

The main replacement sites are Cal Expo and Sleep Train Arena in Natomas. While Cal Expo has the space, it will need to be spruced up to have similar aesthetics to the convention center, he says. Sleep Train has been shuttered since December 2016 so may need some upkeep as well. Using it this way should only be a stopgap; there still needs to be a reuse or redevelopment, and soon.

While Golden 1 Center is also under consideration, there’s a bigger challenge due to scheduling. With the arena busy with Kings games and concerts, it’s difficult to get several days in a row for a convention. Golden 1, however, does have the advantage of keeping convention-goers downtown.

Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, says his group is still reviewing the proposed schedule and says the impact on tenants and nearby businesses must be weighed and minimized.

The city says that the $4 million in construction savings would more than offset lower hotel tax revenues while the center is closed. The upside of finishing the project sooner would far exceed losses in rental fees at the center, or in receipts for downtown businesses, says Steve Hammond, who led Visit Sacramento for nearly 20 years before retiring in June.

With a relatively small impact in the short term, “in the long term, it’s going to be a huge boon for downtown,” Hammond says.

The construction schedule is the latest problem facing a project that has taken a long time to get going. The expanded center is the centerpiece of a shiny new tourist district, in concert with a makeover of the Community Center Theater.

The theater will also go dark during some of the same time for its own renovation, but the city says that will reduce disruption to events there and at the convention center. The $83 million theater refurbishment is to start in fall 2018 and be complete by spring 2021. During their 2019-20 seasons, the California Musical Theatre, Sacramento Ballet and Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera would perform at Memorial Auditorium, which is undergoing improvements now.

This timing issue is unfortunate, but when key projects have been stalled this long, it’s apparently the price of progress in Sacramento.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee