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Will 250,000 Square Feet Be Too Small? : Size of Proposed Convention Center Under Debate

Times Staff Writer

After two months of study, a mayoral task force has concluded that a convention center with about 250,000 square feet of exhibition space is simply inadequate to meet the needs of an attractive Pacific Coast city.

More than twice that much space is essential, the task force determined, if the city does not want to lose $130 million per year in convention business.

Those bombshell findings might have blown wide open the debate over the future of San Diego’s troubled convention center, had the study been conducted in San Diego.

Instead, the task force in question was reporting on the prospects for the Moscone Center in San Francisco, a five-year-old downtown meeting site considered one of the busiest and most successful convention centers in the nation.

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Even so, the San Francisco findings pose some unsettling puzzles for San Diego’s convention center planners.

Convention watchers say the Moscone Center will prove to be the future San Diego center’s arch rival. And if San Francisco follows its task force’s advice and makes Moscone about twice as big as the San Diego center, San Diego will face a harsh competitive challenge, the experts warn.

“That would be a definite concern for San Diego,” said Jerry Lowery, president of the Washington State Convention Center, a smaller center scheduled to open in Seattle in 1988.

“It adds a lot of pressure,” added Denny Maus, director of the Phoenix Civic Plaza, which last year completed an expansion, nearly doubling its exhibition space, in order to compete with San Francisco and San Diego.

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So does San Diego--its convention center project already stalled by cost overruns and construction problems--swallow some more pride and go back to the drawing board? Is the city tying itself up in knots over a building that is inadequate to begin with?

San Diego convention officials insist the answer to both questions is a resounding “no.”

They are neither surprised nor upset by the expansion talk in Northern California--or, for that matter, by convention center enlargement programs planned for Los Angeles and Anaheim, San Diego’s two other major West Coast competitors.

They acknowledge that in deciding three years ago to build a convention center with 250,000 square feet of exhibit space--and 100,000 square feet of rooftop usable for outdoor exhibits or eventual enclosure--San Diego committed itself to a project that just barely could compete for major national conventions.

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But local planners say even if some large meetings are lost to San Francisco or other cities, there will be plenty of business to fill the San Diego convention center.

“San Francisco, one of the major attractions in the world, opened with a 250,000-square-foot facility, which is what we’re opening with,” said Jim Granby, president of the San Diego Convention Center Corp., which will operate the center. “We think we’re at the right size.”

Besides, convention officials say, provisions exist for expanding the San Diego center--probably onto San Diego Unified Port District-owned land to the south of the center’s Navy Field location--once the current plans are realized.

“You don’t have to throw out what we’ve got to build it bigger,” said William Rick, Port Commission chairman. “You just keep pooping along on the south side till you run out of incentive, or money--whichever comes first.”

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Boosters of a major convention center in San Diego arrived at a “right size” for the facility by a fairly circuitous route.

The $224 million downtown convention center rejected by voters in 1981 would have had 200,000 square feet of exhibition space--the wide-open, high-ceilinged area in which trade and consumer show exhibitors can set up booths to promote their products.

Rebounding from the 57% “No” vote on that proposal--which suffered inflated costs because of land acquisition expenses--planners scaled back their hopes and began talking of a Seattle-sized center with 150,000 square feet of show space, based on the conservative recommendation of a Washington consultant.

But tourism officials wanted a bigger center, if a way could be found to finance it. By mid-1983, the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Hotel-Motel Assn. were loudly urging that San Diego--at minimum--needed a center with 250,000 square feet of exhibit space to compete for national

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conventions and trade shows.

A city task force concurred, recommending in May 1983 that San Diego build a center with 200,000 to 250,000 square feet of exhibition space and the capacity to expand by another 100,000 square feet.

Even that decision was a compromise, trading away the ability to compete for the largest conventions in order, it was hoped, to garner public enthusiasm for building any size convention center at all.

“If the political atmosphere permitted it and the funds were available, probably everyone would agree a larger convention center would be preferable,” said San Diego attorney John Davies, who served on the 1983 task force.

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Port commissioners went along with the 250,000-square-foot plan, bolstered by a consultant’s report that said attendance, bookings and tax revenues rocketed upward for a convention center that size, but could be expected to tail off for a center that was somewhat larger.

According to Granby, the estimates still look good.

“At this size, our analysis is that we can serve 95% of the conventions and trade shows we want to serve,” he said.

The findings of the mayoral task force in San Francisco, however, can be read as raising some provocative challenges to the adequacy of San Diego’s plans.

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Unless the Moscone Center is more than doubled in size--boosting its exhibition space from 260,000 square feet to about 600,000 square feet--San Francisco will lose existing convention business that generates $52 million per year in visitor spending, the task force said.

Ralph Boas, who headed the study as San Francisco’s chief administrative officer, reported last week to Mayor Diane Feinstein and the city’s Redevelopment Agency that San Francisco also would gain $80 million in additional convention business by expanding the Moscone Center.

According to Bob Gamble, executive assistant to Boas, groups that have been regular users of the Moscone Center in its first five years have threatened to pull out of San Francisco because they have outgrown the facility. Moreover, the task force determined that Moscone, at its current size, is unable to compete for many of the national conventions targeted as its market, Gamble said.

Particularly at risk, the task force said, are medical groups, whose meetings and associated trade shows have grown tremendously in the last few years. San Francisco, it said, is faced with losing those meetings to bigger convention centers in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

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What makes that conclusion a warning to San Diego is that San Diego, too, has targeted large medical and professional groups as a primary market for its convention center.

“It poses a competitive situation for San Diego,” said Robert Simpson, interim general manager of the Anaheim Convention Center.

“San Diego was going to be larger than San Francisco,” noted Maus, of the Seattle convention center. “Now if San Francisco is announcing they’re going to double their size of exhibition space, that would be a definite concern for San Diego.”

Several caveats need to be considered, though, lest anyone leap to the conclusion that San Diego is about to stable a white elephant on its waterfront:

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- First, San Francisco is a long way from adding to the Moscone Center. Almost as soon as the task force announced its findings last week, environmentalists and neighborhood groups began protesting the concept of enlarging the mostly underground convention complex. City officials say the proposed $90 million expansion would require an environmental impact report, a financing plan and a public vote before it could be undertaken.

- Second, many convention experts say San Diego can afford to ignore its competitors’ expansion plans, because there is more than enough meeting business of all sizes to keep it and the West’s other convention centers busy--regardless of how big a few centers become.

“If you recognize that the convention industry--both trade shows and consumer shows--is growing at about 18% to 21% a year, I think there’s business out there for centers the size of San Diego and all the others on the West Coast,” said Simpson, of the Anaheim center.

- Third, size is not the only criterion on which associations base their decisions to bring a convention to a city. San Diego’s climate, attractiveness and novelty as the newest major convention site will keep it in the competition for all but the very biggest meetings, said Al Reese, spokesman for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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“The show managers want to get people out to shows, and the way to do that is to have them in interesting places,” added Granby, of the Convention Center Corp. “San Diego is definitely one of those places.”

Even defenders of San Diego’s current plans agree that the city will have to begin considering expansion of its convention center almost as soon as it opens its doors.

“I’m sure once San Diego gets the hall built, you’re going to want to expand it,” said Don Walter, executive director of the National Assn. of Exposition Managers, an Ohio-based group of convention planners.

“When the convention center was first designed, there was no question we were designing something that had the minimum amount of space required to make it a first-class, marketable convention facility,” said Jim Durbin, president of the San Diego Hotel-Motel Assn. “There’s also no question that everybody else is in an expansion mode. Not too many years after we’re open, we’re going to have to be looking at expanding the facility.”

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Granby said expansion will need to be addressed within five years of the convention center’s debut. He said San Francisco’s plans would put no additional pressure on San Diego to enlarge its center.

Convention experts say expansion is a universal pattern: meeting groups outgrow a city’s facilities, prompting convention centers to expand.

Besides San Francisco, it has happened in Los Angeles, where the convention center has plans to add 275,000 square feet of exhibit space to the existing 335,000 square feet of show space. It has happened, too, in Anaheim, where the third generation of expansion is planned, involving the addition of a 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall to the existing 700,000-square-foot facility.

But in San Diego, all thoughts for now are focused on the more immediate question of getting a convention center of any size built. Construction bids for the project, opened last month, were more than 20% over the port’s $101.5 million budget, and excavation problems have raised doubts about the Navy Field site.

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“It’s fun to make plans, and sometimes hard work to build things,” said Rick, the Port Commission chairman. “I think we’d better put our mind to building the first one first, and then we can put our mind to expanding it.”


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