Sept. 16 2015 12:36 AM

San Diego is great at dithering over convention center expansion

The San Diego Convention Center
Photo by Prayitno / Flickr

    Could making the good citizens of San Diego wonder whether a local institution will pull up roots and move out of town become a trend? The Chargers have shown that casting eyes at Los Angeles environs focuses media attention, causes widespread heart palpitations and gets local politicians flexing their check-writing hands.

    What's stopping another San Diego orgainzation from putting itself out there on the market because it can't get the new edifice it wants to play in? Suppose the next job post for a sales manager at the San Diego Convention Center included the line: “Must be willing to relocate to Los Angeles.”

    At the risk of squelching good speculation with facts, I asked San Diego Convention Center Corporation spokesperson Steven Johnson if we can be absolutely sure SDCC President and CEO Carol Wallace is not colluding with Oakland officials about a sweet new convention hall in Carson, or pleading with a St. Louis billionaire to team up with him on joint meeting facilities in Inglewood.

    “That rumor would be absolutely false,” said Johnson, straight-faced.

    As was the case with a new Chargers stadium, there are two possible local sites proposed for a San Diego Convention Center expansion. Both sites are downtown and each allows for an expansion of nearly 400,000 square feet. The “contiguous” option calls for building on a parking lot and a grass lawn right behind the current center, bordering the San Diego Bay. The “campus” plan would be three blocks away in East Village, and could be connected to the existing center via a 1,600-room megahotel and sky bridges.

    For the Chargers, two million dollars of taxpayer money was questionably poured into an environmental impact report in an attempt to show that Mission Valley was the logical choice for a new stadium. About $90,000 (roughly $90,000 more than necessary) was spent on a study conducted by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International to confirm what any tourism industry intern knows—contiguous space is preferred by meeting planners.

    More than 50 current and past SDCC customers were surveyed by CSL, and 91 percent would “definitely, possibly or likely” use a contiguously expanded center in the future; that number drops to 47 percent for a campus. San Diego Tourism Authority President and CEO Joe Terzi called the campus plan “a separate convention center.” He'd welcome that as a private construction project—but only after a contiguous expansion.

    Mayor Kevin Faulconer has endorsed the contiguous plan, and is willing to put a transient occupancy tax hike on a 2016 ballot to help pay for a $410 million expansion.

    But here we are again, back where we started—whether with a football team or a civic project— plotting public subsidies for private businesses that don't want to reach for their own wallets.

    We'll have plenty of time to dither about this later. A convention center addition will not be happening any time soon, presumably not at least before President Bernie Sanders gets in gear for his reelection run. There's still Cory Briggs' pending litigation on the contiguous site and latent opposition to “walling off the bay.” A two-thirds majority vote for a new tax, whether it's levied on visitors or locals, is less probable than an apology from Donald Trump (for anything).

    It might seem civic-minded that a big company like JMI Realty put out a statement condemning the contiguous expansion plan, saying: “...any expansion that further walls off the bay front is not in the best interest of the city or its residents.” They must really care. Oh, wait, JMI wants to build the megahotel that would help anchor the campus plan.

    San Diego is a top meeting and convention destination and the city could invest fairly in infrastructure that creates jobs in that industry. In-fighting, hotelier greed and a perennial dearth of shared vision seem destined to keep a plan that bolsters the tourism industry, while protecting taxpayers, from moving the city forward.

    Of course a convention center or visitor sales team can't relocate. “The thing is that we can't pick up and move to Los Angeles,” said the SD-CC's Johnson. “But I think what the question here would be is whether our clients will pick up and move to L.A.”


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