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Bigger center would pay off

Expansion of the Tampa Convention Center would draw more business, says a consultant.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published August 15, 2003

TAMPA - Enough potential business exists to support a significant expansion of the Tampa Convention Center, according to a consultant hired by Hillsborough County's tourism board.

A growing number of conventions and trade shows use all the convention center's exhibit hall and ballroom space, said the consulting firm KPMG LLC.

Competition is heating up from larger rivals, the firm said, and meeting planners say they'd be more likely to pick Tampa if the city has a bigger convention center and more nearby hotel rooms.

The strategy behind proposed expansion - as much as double the current space - isn't to steal big events from top-tier convention cities, said John Moors, Tampa's administrator of convention facilities and tourism. Instead, it would enable the convention center to handle two mid-size conventions at the same time, he said.

"We're not in this to compete with Las Vegas and Chicago," Moors said. "There's enough business similar to the size we're doing today. We think we can double up on that."

KPMG's conclusions didn't surprise Moors or the Hillsborough County Tourism Development Council, which last year identified expanding the convention center as a top goal.

But the next phase of the study will deal with stickier issues. Those include where the center, pinched between the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and the water, could grow. And, of course, how much the expansion would cost and who would pay for it.

"We'll need to see Phase 2 ... put us in a position to see what's what," said council member Bob Morrison.

KPMG interviewed about 140 meeting planners and local businesses that rely on convention visitors, such as hotels and attractions. Meeting planners said their top priority in picking a city is the availability of meeting facilities and hotels.

More than 75 percent of conventions and trade shows this year needed the Tampa Convention Center's entire ballroom. Forty-four percent required all 200,000 square feet of exhibit hall space.

Meeting planners told the consultants that Tampa was hurt by the limited number of hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center - about 1,820.

If the city expanded the convention center and added nearby hotels, three-quarters of the planners surveyed said they would definitely or likely consider Tampa for their event. Without either improvement, 55 percent said they would definitely or likely not be interested.

Meanwhile, competition for conventions and meetings is becoming more fierce.

Tradeshow Week estimated last year that projects in the works would increase convention exhibit space in North America by 25 percent to 84.4-million square feet in five years. That's three times the previous record pace of construction in the 1990s.

And Tampa has new competition for its bread and butter: conventions with around 5,000 people.

As more and more groups hold smaller regional conventions rather than one huge gathering, mega-centers like Orlando are selling them on using a portion of their facilities, said Susan Sieger of KPMG.

"The competition is not just buildings similar in size, but buildings in first-tier cities," she said.

The city borrowed $146-million against general revenues to build the convention center after declaring the former Curtis Hixon Hall too small and obsolete. Yet the new building opened in 1990 generates only enough revenue to break even on the cost of running it. It doesn't help the city repay any of its $13.2-million annual mortgage bill.

Three years ago the county spent $5.5-million from taxes on hotel bills to double the center's collection of small meeting rooms.

At the very least, the convention center needs a facelift and technological upgrade with fiber optic wiring and other gear, Moors said.

But KPMG says the city should look at expanding the 279,000-square-foot center to between 494,000 and 559,000 square feet. No one is hazarding a guess at the cost.

Consultants will look at options other cities and counties chose to finance their convention centers, including sales tax, hotel/motel tax, rental car tax and state funding, said Sieger.

"Ideally, you want to make those who are using the building pay for it," she said.

- Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.

[Last modified August 15, 2003, 01:17:11]

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