UPDATE ON TOURISM : Sweating Out Completion of the Convention Center

Champagne, brass bands and ribbon cutting notwithstanding, the National Spa and Pool Institute says being among the first convention groups to stage a show in the San Diego Convention Center is a dubious honor.

In fact, if NSPI vice president Larry Jennings had it to do over again, he would reschedule his Alexandria, Va.-based trade association to be the convention center's "first anniversary" group in January, 1991, giving the center a year to get the kinks worked out, he said.

As it is, Jennings, whose 5,000-delegate group is due Jan. 10, is sweating out the completion of the structure. Why the trepidation? Jennings frankly confessed in an interview this week that the delays and snags that have attended the construction of the $165-million center have unnerved him and his board of directors.

The most recent scare came last month when San Diego Fire Marshal Jim Sewell declared that the convention center's sprinkler system was unacceptable because some of the sprinkler heads in the fire-safety system were obstructed by light fixtures. Sewell's initial ruling was that the entire ballroom's sprinkler system would have to be moved, a considerable and costly undertaking, before the convention center owner, the San Diego Port District, could receive a certificate of occupancy.

The fire marshal's ruling set of a round of finger-pointing among the convention center architects, contractors and construction management firm over who was to blame, how best to alleviate the problem and who should pay for it. The story also sent shudders through the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (ConVis), which markets the 760,000-square foot facility. The convention center's credibility has been damaged enough by past delays, ConVis officials have said.

The sprinkler problem now seems to have been solved, at least partially, say Sewell and project manager Billy G. Crockett of Fluor Constructors, who was hired by the port district to oversee construction. The subcontractor responsible for the sprinkler system apparently built an "excess number of sprinklers" into the ceiling, sources said, meaning that even with the obstructions, the water coverage will be adequate to meet fire safety standards. A test by the fire marshal's office last Friday confirmed the adequacy.

Sewell said a new sprinkler system still has to be built in some of the convention's meeting rooms, but, according to Crockett, there is ample time for the new system to be in place and not delay the center's opening.

Still, Jennings isn't resting easy, largely because there is so little margin for error. He suffered another scare over the summer when 60% of the convention center's construction crew walked off the job for 2 1/2 days to protest a non-union crew being called in to work on the convention center's kitchen. A protracted strike was averted when the non-union work crew agreed to organize. Theft of some of the center's aluminum molding and glass also disrupted the construction schedule.

"It's not a whole lot of fun being the first group," Jennings said this week. Actually, the NSPI and its 5,000 delegates will be the center's second major out-of-town occupant after Young Life, a 3,000-delegate evangelical Christian organization from Colorado Springs that's due in Jan. 3.

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