Convention Center Plan Stalled : L.B. Port Cites Lack of Cash, Declines to Aid in Expansion

Times Staff Writer

A proposed $59.5-million expansion of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center appears to be dead in the water unless members of the City Council can persuade Port of Long Beach officials to pay for part of it with money port officials say is unavailable.

"We simply do not have any surplus money," said Jim McJunckin, executive director of the port.

"I would encourage them to look thoroughly into it," said Warren Harwood, a council member and outspoken proponent of convention center expansion.

The issue is likely to have a complete airing on July 1 when harbor commissioners meet with a council liaison committee chaired by Harwood to discuss the port's possible funding of the proposed expansion project.

An ad hoc citizens' committee set up to study the issue of convention center expansion recently recommended that the port underwrite the major portion of its cost after determining that there was no other major funding sources available.

"The Convention and Entertainment Center," the committee's report read, "is the cornerstone of an effective strategic plan for the continuing renaissance of Long Beach based on capturing that portion of the tourism and convention industry which is attracted by the unique Long Beach coastal environment."

Pacific Rim Center

Among other things, the committee recommended that the focus of the expansion be a Pacific Rim Conference Center that would enhance the port's business, thereby justifying the Harbor Department's financial involvement in the project.

Expansion of the convention center has long been advocated by local hoteliers, business people and members of the Greater Long Beach Convention and Visitors Council who predict a significant glut of local hotel rooms should it not take place.

Even though the city charter allows the council to amend the Harbor Department's budget, Harwood said he believes that the commissioners should decide to make the money available without direct political pressure. But both they and City Manager John Dever have reacted negatively to the idea. In the words of Commissioner C. Robert Langslet, "We're in the port business, not the convention business."

Of the port's $215-million budget for 1986-87, according to Paul Brown, director of port finance, $175 million is earmarked for capital improvements. Of that, he said, $121 million is budgeted for the acquisition of much-needed land for expansion and the rest for the necessary improvement of structures and facilities.

"One of our biggest problems here is that we're landlocked," said Brown, referring to the fact that if the port is to expand, it would have to be onto new landfill or by purchasing land. "It's clear that we have to be prudent with how we handle our cash resources because they're going to be our only source of capital for the purchase of land and that is now our top priority."

'Isn't Going to Be Any Money'

Said Langslet: "The purpose of the revenues that come in from the port is to continue to build and improve the port. Our main function is to have a business atmosphere; it would seem that at least in the foreseeable future there isn't going to be any money available to fund a convention center."

Of the four harbor commissioners reached for comment Tuesday, three expressed similar sentiments and one said he was undecided. The Harbor Commission has five voting members.

Using port money to fund the expansion of the convention center was one of several recommendations made by the 17-member ad hoc advisory committee formed earlier this year after an outside consultant hired by the city proposed an expansion plan that would nearly double the amount of exhibition space available at the convention center and add 25,000 square feet of new meeting rooms.

The ad hoc committee endorsed the consultant's proposed construction of 75,000 to 100,000 square feet of new exhibition space next to the existing facility but recommended that, in order to cut costs, nearby hotels such as the Hyatt Regency be encouraged to underwrite the construction of their own meeting rooms.

Other Sources Ruled Out

In recommending that the major cost be borne by the Harbor Department, committee Chairman Hal Gansert said, the committee ruled out several other sources of funds as not feasible, including bonds, the city's general fund, tidelands oil revenues, higher hotel room taxes and use of the city's redevelopment agency.

Linda O'Toole, general manager of the downtown Hyatt Regency, said that she personally would welcome construction of meeting rooms at the hotel's expense though no decision had yet been made to embark on such a project.

But Dever reacted with skepticism to the ad hoc committee's recommendation that another consultant be hired to explore means of financing the proposed expansion. "To waste money on a project which right now has no feasible means of financing would be a dire mistake," he said at a recent city council meeting at which the matter was discussed.

Instead, the council gave Harwood's harbor liaison committee 30 days to meet with representatives of the Harbor Department and return with a report on possible financing of the expansion project.

"We'd like to discuss their becoming partners," Harwood said of his upcoming meeting with the harbor commissioners.

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