The Austin American-Statesman reports that Austin needs to expand its convention center, adding 200,000 square feet of exhibit space and more meeting and ballroom space, at a cost estimated between $400 million and $600 million. The “long-range master plan” presented to the city council offers as evidence of the “convention center’s success” a chart of the growth in citywide hotel tax collections. No mention of how hotel demand has boomed because of the city’s success as a tech center. No mention of the role of big events like South by Southwest in bringing visitors. And just two numbers on the actual performance of the convention center — two “estimated [hotel] room nights of ACC events” — from 2009 and 2015.
The major argument from a local technical assistance panel of the Urban Land Institute is that “with 247,050 square feet of exhibition space, the Convention Center is well below the average of 518,000 square feet of Convention Center exhibit space offered by many peer cities” — and less than half the space of centers in San Antonio, Houston, and Denver. Which is, of course, the case for almost every other city with a center smaller than the two million square feet or more in Chicago, Orlando, and Las Vegas.
And what if Austin doesn’t expand? Then there will be “competitiveness in convention market at risk” and “lost jobs.”
Note to Austin councilmembers and staff, who have again hired C. H. Johnson Consulting to advise them on the expansion: When Johnson Consulting produced the July 1997 “Strategic Plan for Austin’s Convention Center Industry” on the previous expansion, the firm forecast “an expanded Center will generate approximately 332,600 room nights in Austin.” Last year’s room night total from the center: 261,178.