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L.A. Convention Center shortcomings cost area $5 billion in four years

In the last four years, L.A. has lost $5 billion in business because of shortcomings at its convention center

Los Angeles lost out on nearly $5 billion in economic benefits over the last four years from 271 conventions that bypassed the city because its convention center was either too small or lacked enough hotel rooms within walking distance.

That was the assessment given Wednesday by Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board chief Ernest Wooden Jr., who made a pitch for a greater investment in the city to draw more tourists and conventions in the next few years.

"By expanding and futurizing our convention center, we can capture our fair share of that market, and it will serve as a better economic engine for the city of Los Angeles," he said during an economic forum in downtown Los Angeles.

Besides the 271 conventions that passed up Los Angeles because of the size of the center and a lack of hotels, an additional 530 conventions bypassed Los Angeles for various other reasons, such as transportation issues and a lack of small meeting rooms, Wooden said. During the four-year period, the Los Angeles Convention Center hosted 108 major conventions.

The business of housing, feeding and entertaining visitors makes up one of the county's largest industries. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. estimated in a report Wednesday, released as part of the forum, that the tourism and hospitality industries support 426,300 jobs.

The biggest hurdles facing the Los Angeles Convention Center won't be addressed soon.

A plan to upgrade the convention center is on hold, Wooden said, until the National Football League decides whether to bring a professional football team to a stadium proposed on land adjacent to the convention center. The football stadium plan calls for demolishing and relocating a wing of the convention center.

If an NFL team doesn't settle in Los Angeles, Wooden said the city will turn to a backup plan to spend as much as $350 million to modernize the convention center.

A total of 29 new hotels with 5,200 rooms are either under construction or on the drawing boards in Los Angeles County, including 1,825 rooms within walking distance of the convention center. But Wooden said the region needs 7,000 additional rooms, with at least 3,500 rooms within walking distance of the convention center to attract more large conventions.

He noted that construction has begun on a new 900-room InterContinental Hotel on the site of the former Wilshire Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. "Just what the doctor ordered," Wooden said.

Another upgrade needed to make Los Angeles more competitive in drawing major conventions, he said, is improved public transit to Los Angeles International Airport, which was recently ranked as the second-busiest airport in the nation.

"We need to continue the ongoing improvements at the airport," Wooden said. "It's our largest piece of tourism infrastructure."

Sean Burton, president of the airport commission, told the economic forum that transportation officials are moving ahead with plans to build a new rail station a mile and a half from the airport. Travelers could take a monorail-like system between the station and the airport terminal, resulting in fewer cars circling at the airport.

"By doing that, we will be able to push a lot of the traffic, almost 30% of the traffic that you fight now, out of the central terminal area," he said. The rail station is expected to be built by 2024.

Tourism officials hope such improvements will help Los Angeles County reach a goal of drawing 50 million visitors a year by 2020, up from the 43 million visitors last year.

Economists noted that although a rise in tourism would generate 119,500 job openings in the next five years, most of those positions would require workers with no high school diploma or specific skills.

Christine Cooper, an economist and vice president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said tourism jobs are low-paying but are good for first-time workers, students and people who are looking to move up to higher-paying positions.

"So, I'm not negative on this," she said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

Twitter: @hugomartin

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