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Washington needs an expanded convention center to compete successfully in the growing convention market. But nationwide research shows that the current plan for a new convention center will result in a facility that will not rank among the 15 largest convention centers in the nation. D.C. is at risk of constructing a convention center that will be obsolete a few years after it opens -- at a potential cost to taxpayers of more than $1 billion in cash and land.
The Committee of 100 received pro bono assistance from several nationally-known convention center planners to conduct a survey comparing the top 20 U.S. convention centers in terms of exhibit space (existing and planned), site acreage, and on-site or contiguous parking. The Mt. Vernon Square plan for a convention center was considered in this context.
Survey data were compiled by analysts representing three of the top U.S. convention center planning firms:
Charles Johnson of C.H. Johnson Consulting is internationally recognized as a consultant in the convention, sport, attraction and general real estate consulting field. His firm has been contracted to provide planning and financing services to more than 40 convention centers, including the Jacob Javits Convention Center (New York City), the Baltimore Convention Center, the Charlotte Convention Center, McCormick Place (Chicago), the San Francisco Convention Center, the Seattle Convention Center, the Orange County (Orlando) Convention Center and the Philadelphia Convention Center. Prior to forming Johnson Consulting, Charles Johnson worked for the Chicago firm that developed McCormick Place, Stein & Company. He was national director of KPMG Peat Marwick's Convention, Sports and Leisure Consulting practice.
David O'Neal of Conventional Wisdom, Inc., is a lead consultant on the new convention and exhibition center in Boston, specializing in convention facility programming design, development, construction, marketing, event servicing, and operation. Recent projects include the Vancouver Trade and Convention Center, the Palm Beach Convention Center, the San Diego Convention Center Expansion, and the McCormick Place (Chicago) Expansion.
Jeff Sachs of E & Y Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group: Ernst & Young LLP, is a strategic planner and finance expert on convention centers, advising municipalities on long-term planning and economic issues related to convention center development. In the United States, Ernst & Young is the largest accounting, audit and tax services firm, employing more than 20,000 personnel in over 100 cities. Recent convention center projects include the Cincinnati Convention Center, the Jacob Javits Center (New York), the Los Angeles World Trade Center, McCormick Place (Chicago), the Orange County Convention Center (Orlando), the San Antonio Convention Center, and the Toronto Convention and Trade Center.
The Center for Exhibition Industry Research predicts that within the next five years, demand for convention center exhibition space will grow by 23 percent. Industry experts agree that both the size of trade shows and meetings, and their attendance, keep growing every year as the overall U.S. economy grows and diversifies.
This growth will create continuing demand for large convention centers.
Convention Center Size
The survey ranked the Top 20 convention centers in the United States in terms of size. Chicago was ranked first, with existing and planned exhibition space totaling 2.35 million square feet, followed by New Orleans (2), Orlando (3), Las Vegas (4), Atlanta (5), Las Vegas (Sands) (6), Los Angeles (7), Javits (New York City) (8), Anaheim (9), Orlando (10), San Diego (11), Boston (12), Dallas (13), Kentucky Expo (14) and Miami Beach (15).
The proposed Mt. Vernon Square convention center ranked 16th, contradicting the testimony of the Washington Convention Center Authority that the proposed D.C. center would be ranked sixth in the nation when completed.
City and hotel/restaurant industry officials have argued in favor of a new, expanded convention center in D.C. because the current convention center, now ranked 30th, has been surpassed by facilities in other cities in terms of size. This has resulted in lost convention business in D.C.
The fact that the proposed Mt. Vernon center would rank only 16th -- not sixth -- means that the Mt. Vernon center would have a shorter competitive life than originally predicted.
Expansion Plans and Site Acreage
The survey showed that nearly all of the nation's first-tier convention centers have plans to expand. Most cities have chosen convention center sites that offer generous expansion room. For instance, Chicago's McCormick Place occupies a site larger than 100 acres. Boston's new convention center -- not far from downtown -- will occupy a 60-acre site. These facilities have been located with future expansion as part of the original plans. This is due to the fact that the convention business continues to grow.
But the Mt. Vernon plan for a convention center in D.C. offers no possibility for future expansion. Not only did the proposed Mt. Vernon convention center not rank among the Top 15, but the lack of expansion capability means the facility cannot be updated to meet future market demands.
All convention centers in the survey (with the exception of the Javits Center in New York City, for obvious reasons) developed thousands of on-site or contiguous parking spaces as part of their facilities. The convention centers in the survey -- not including Mt. Vernon -- had an average of 5,000 parking spaces each.
The Washington Convention Center Authority, however, maintains that parking is not needed for the Mt. Vernon center because most visitors will arrive by plane or train. The Mt. Vernon plan includes zero additional parking spaces (1000 will be eliminated on site).
Lack of parking threatens the viability of the proposed Mt. Vernon center.
This survey of the largest 20 convention centers in the United States shows that Washington, D.C. will not have the sixth largest center when built, as the WCCA predicts, but will be fortunate to end up 16th. The Mt. Vernon center, unlike most centers in the U.S., will not be able to expand to meet market demands.
With the Mt. Vernon plan for a new convention center, D.C. is on the brink of repeating the same mistake it made with the old convention center. Because it had no room to expand, the first Washington Convention Center was recognized as undersized just three years after it opened, when the hotel industry began planning a new, larger convention center. Parking has been and will continue to be a problem, because the Mt. Vernon plan calls for zero additional parking space for a facility that will attract 42,000 people at one time, with 64-84 local events per year.
The same narrow 17-acre Mt. Vernon site which prevents expansion and on-site parking is also driving the costs of the center out of sight. Underground construction of 500,000 square feet of exhibition space; underground construction of truck bays; hollowing-out 9th Street; and reinforcing the second and third levels for truck access and egress has added $150 million to $250 million in cost.
As the costs of the proposed D.C. convention center approach $1 billion, with clear indications that the center's viability will be severely limited, it is more important than ever that the Union Station North alternative -- with its room for expansion and parking -- be explored thoroughly.
The Committee of 100
The Committee of 100 on the Federal City is the oldest citizens planning and advocacy group in Washington. Founded in 1923 by Frederic A. Delano, FDR's uncle, the Committee has served for over 70 years as both a thoughtful forum and an active participant in planning the city and its region.
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