Saturday, July 22, 2000

Convention center panel urges extension over I-75

$325 million project would double space, modernize

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A task force studying Cincinnati's convention center agreed Friday that the facility should double its size and extend west over Interstate 75 — a $325 million expansion intended to keep the city from losing lucrative conventions to other Midwest cities.

        The task force, appointed by Mayor Charlie Luken, now must decide what the center will look like, how it will be built and, most important, who will pay for it.

        Although just an advisory vote, the task force's decision ends months of specula tion that the city-owned convention center would expand south or east, and allows study of more precise details that can make or break the project.

        Dan Meyer, who chairs the group of business leaders and government officials, said a detailed plan and realistic budget are the next steps to expand the center by 350,000 or 400,000 square feet. He wants to avoid the cost overruns that have plagued construction of Paul Brown Stadium, being built for the Bengals.

        “We are on the heels of criticism over the stadium,” said Mr. Meyer, chairman and chief executive officer of Milacron Inc.

        “We can't afford (to re peat) that fiasco.”

        Task force members rejected an alternate plan to push the convention center south of Fifth Street after hearing the city would have to acquire and bulldoze historic buildings on the block. City officials also warned that expanding south of Fifth Street would shoo away a

        group that wants to build a hotel.

        Expanding west would create more desirable, continuous meeting space with better docks, allowing trucks to more easily bring convention equipment into the building, said Michael Ezell, an Atlanta-based consultant.

        Still uncertain is how the convention center would span I-75. Mr. Meyer expects regional planners will discuss the convention center expansion as part of the ongoing I-75 corridor study, which aims to decide what's needed to improve traffic flow along the north-south route from Cincinnati to Dayton.

        That study is coordinated by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, its counterpart in Dayton and dozens of local governments along the interstate.

        Mr. Luken's task force plans to direct the city's financial consultant, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, to update cost estimates and eco nomic benefits of the expanded convention center. The consultant estimated a smaller, 350,000-square-foot expansion west of the current site would cost $325 million. A larger, $400 million expansion was originally proposed by the Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau.

        The latest economic study, completed in 1998, predicts the expansion would spur $113 million in spending by visitors for an overall economic impact of $189 million.

        Cincinnati has committed $50.8 million in bonds to pay for the project. A city room-tax increase would raise $18 million, but it would take effect only after private businesses kick in $20 million. Delta Air Lines has earmarked another $30 million in exchange for naming rights.

        Other possible funding sources include: a city restaurant tax, Hamilton County, a county hotel tax, state funds and marketing funds from Kentucky and Indiana. Robert Canton, of PriceWater house Coopers, said the city is losing quality conventions that generate more dollars because the existing center is inadequate. Not only is it too small, it doesn't have the technology needed to lure quality conventions.

        The result: Smaller conventions with visitors who spend fewer dollars at the area's hotels, museums, restaurants and retail shops.

        “You've got the infrastructure to attract the events,” Mr. Canton said of the region's air service and hotel rooms. “You just don't have the facilities.”

        The task force, which meets monthly, wants to issue final recommendations to Mr. Luken before the end of the year. Cincinnati City Council must vote on the plan.

        “Our city is ready for an expanded convention center,” said Gary Wachs, general manager of Garfield House Suite Hotel. "'We've spent so much on the stadiums and on Fort Washington Way. This city should have the confidence to go forward on this.”


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