Cities expand convention centers despite soft demand

CLEVELAND (AP) - A glut of exhibit space at convention centers across the nation has not discouraged Cleveland and other cities from plans to build roomier facilities.
Nationally, exhibit space grew one-third from 1990 to 2001 to 53.7 million square feet. By 2006, exhibit space is expected to soar 30 percent again to 69.6 million square feet, according to Trade Show Week magazine.
Cleveland officials are considering proposing a tax and other ways to finance a new convention center, estimated to cost at least $500 million. Several downtown sites are being considered.
A new convention center may spark new business and development, but not as quickly as supporters typically predict.
Cities such as Milwaukee and Louisville, Ky., which overhauled their convention centers in recent years, vie for similar convention business as Cleveland.
Both cities are looking to expand their convention space again, although neither has enough money to do so.
To attract conventions, Louisville's convention and visitors bureau is offering as much as $10,000 to meeting planners who commit to a big enough block of hotel rooms by June 30. "Book with us, and bank up to a cool 10 grand!" says an advertisement in the publication Meeting News.
Milwaukee's center slashes rent to pennies a square foot for some groups.
"Ten years ago, you wouldn't have thought about doing that," said Richard Geyer, president of the Wisconsin Center District, which owns the convention center, an arena and a historic theater.
Like other convention center operators, Geyer aims to reap
income through food and beverage sales, on parking or through other services. The results are mixed.
Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist is hardly zealous about the effect of the city's new convention center on its economy.
"It met my expectations because I didn't have high expectations," he said.
Supporters contend that an improved convention center brings better business and puts a shine on a city's image.
"None of these facilities ought to be judged on economic
impact," said Bob Milbourne, who used to run a business leadership group in Milwaukee and now heads the Columbus Partnership, an organization of business leaders who promote economic and cultural growth in Ohio's capital.
Hotel business is up in Milwaukee and the number of conventions has doubled since the center was rebuilt, said Doug Neilson, president of the city's convention and visitors bureau.
The number of events, attendees and exhibitors continues to grow at Louisville's convention center, according to a 2001 report by university researchers for the Kentucky State Fair Board.
The number of out-of-town attendees has more than doubled in the last 10 years, trade show traffic is up and the number of hotel rooms filled is up from 1997, the report said.
The staff of Cleveland's convention center estimates that the amount of business lost because the center has not been upgraded topped $200 million in 2001.
Milwaukee's mayor said a new convention center is "supposed to be so essential," but added that it's not going to let a
second-tier city leapfrog to the top of the list.
Norquist's advice for cities like Cleveland is, "Approach this with a little humility."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)