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Race to Finish Convention Center on Time Will Be a Squeaker

Times Staff Writer

Expressing confidence that the much-postponed opening of San Diego’s new $160-million convention center will not be further delayed, the board that oversees the bayfront facility predicted Tuesday that shows scheduled at the center early next year will go ahead as planned.

With the board members’ optimism tempered by caution stemming from the delays and false starts that have plagued the project from its inception, the San Diego Convention Center Corp. unanimously adopted a resolution stating that an Oct. 31 target date for completion of construction “appears to be achievable.”

As a result, none of the 11 major conventions and shows scheduled for next January and February appear in jeopardy, General Manager Tom Liegler told the board. The latest construction timetable, however, means that the center’s operators will have less than the three-month “shakedown” period they had hoped for prior to the first major convention.

Invitations Planned

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Moreover, recognizing that some convention organizers feel uneasy about planning to hold their events at a still-unfinished center, the board voted to invite them to San Diego for an all-expenses-paid effort to convince them that the center will, indeed, be completed in time.

“We’re confident, but we have to get the (show organizers) to feel confident, too,” said James Granby, president of the convention center board. “We think after they see the progress, they’ll feel more comfortable.”

Tuesday’s meeting provided a more upbeat assessment of the center’s outlook than the prognosis given last month, when convention center officials warned that construction delays at the 760,000-square-foot facility might force cancellation of events from November through January.

2 Shows Canceled

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Although two consumer shows that had been tentatively scheduled for November have been canceled, several pre-opening parties and other events will be held at the center between Nov. 1 and the first major convention Jan. 3, officials said Tuesday. Those events include a Thanksgiving weekend open house in which San Diegans will be invited to tour the architecturally distinctive center, which features flying concrete buttresses and a vinyl, tent-like roof meant to evoke images of sails gliding over San Diego Bay.

While relieved--at least temporarily--over averting the public-relations nightmare that could be expected if the center’s first major conventions had to be be scrapped, board members emphasized that the Oct. 31 completion date leaves them with no margin for error.

“From our point, we’ve cut this right down to the bone,” Granby said. “If we can’t get in by Oct. 31, we’ve got major problems. Even a delay of a week or two would be very difficult to deal with.”

Finishing Touches

During November and December, tons of equipment must be moved into the center, assembled and tested, even as the center’s 159-member full-time staff is trained and workers put finishing touches on the structure’s interior. The “Community Celebration” open house and other so-called “soft opening” events planned for those two months, meanwhile, will provide test runs for facets of the center’s operations ranging from parking and traffic control to food service and cleanup.

“There’s no play at all in the schedule,” added board member Jim Durbin. “There’s no cushion as far as those 60 days are concerned. We’re down to the nitty-gritty.”

In a related action that demonstrates further incremental progress toward the center’s opening, the board also authorized convention center administrators to negotiate a contract under which skilled craft personnel will be hired. Bid specifications for equipment such as chairs, tables and telescopic risers were also approved Tuesday.

Computer Analysis

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The Oct. 31 completion date--two years later than the original goal--is based on a computer analysis of the project that officials of the San Diego Unified Port District, the body that is financing the center’s construction, say reinforces that target. Specifically, that computer study examined roughly 2,000 construction details that still must be finished at the facility, which is more than 80% complete.

In addition, convention center officials have been reassured by the fact that construction on the center’s 11-acre site, situated on Harbor Drive near Seaport Village, is meeting week-by-week progress benchmarks that Liegler described as “the critical path . . . to Oct. 31.”

“Ultimately, they know and we don’t,” Granby said of the port officials monitoring the construction. “They’re the ones in the best position to know whether the schedule can be met. And they tell us it can.”

Discussed Liability

During Tuesday’s meeting, the board met in a half-hour closed session to assess its legal liability in the event any of the early 1990 conventions would have to be canceled because of unanticipated construction delays. Many of the more than 50,000 convention delegates expected in January alone already have booked hotel rooms, and the trade associations sponsoring those events would find it difficult, if not impossible, to relocate their programs on short notice.

Board member Paul Peterson, a lawyer, argued that the invitations to show organizers to visit San Diego to get a first-hand look at the center could help mitigate the board’s financial responsibility if that worst-case scenario comes to pass. Those trips--part of a 10-point plan recommended by Liegler to guide the board’s activities over the next seven months--will be financed either by the convention center board or the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau (ConVis), which has booked most of the inaugural conventions.

“If the people that come out here are apprised of the situation, they can make their own choice whether they want to go forward or not,” Peterson said. “As long as we’ve been fair and they make an educated and informed choice, knowing all the risks . . . I think that problem will take care of itself.”

Talking to Organizers

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ConVis head Dal Watkins, noting that his group has been talking to nervous show organizers on a weekly basis, said he believes that the trips will significantly enhance that public relations campaign and prompt the officials to proceed with plans to stage their events here.

“This is a very encouraging sign, because there’s a lot at stake here,” Watkins said. The loss of next January’s shows, Watkins noted, would cost the city about $8.3 million and would likely precipitate a stampede of other cancellations for later events.

Tuesday’s action, however, bolstered the board members’ confidence that they will not have to confront that unpleasant possibility, as well as demonstrated their growing conviction that the major problems that stalled the project throughout much of the 1980s are largely behind them.

Rejected by Voters

Controversial from the outset, the convention center proposal was rejected by San Diego voters in 1981, but was approved two years later when the site was moved from the city’s center to the harborfront and the Port District agreed to build it. (The city, however, is responsible for any operating deficits.)

Originally targeted for completion in 1987, the project was delayed for a year when construction bids came in more than $20 million over the port’s estimated budget of $101 million to $107 million, prompting the port to seek a second round of bids. The new bids produced a $118-million price tag, which since has risen to $123 million because of minor changes. The $160 million figure includes the cost of equipment, furnishings and other interior accessories.

Subsequent construction problems--among them, excavation delays caused by underground water and labor woes in Korea that postponed shipments of structural steel--pushed back the completion date to Oct. 31.

‘Comfort Level’

“There’s always some nervousness in these things . . . but right now there’s a comfort level that wasn’t there 30 days ago,” board member Durbin said, adding that the Oct. 31 date now looks “more solid” than it did.

While pleased by that shift in perception, Liegler used a homily to remind the board of the obstacles that remain to meet that deadline.

“It is the last ounce of effort that usually wins the race,” Liegler said. “I have to say it feels good to have finally reached that point.”


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