I’m talking about any of the various business interests in town that are scrambling to find a venue for their expositions and conferences now that the Phil Long Expo Center is closing its doors.
Finding adequate space isn’t their only issue.
Just try asking The Broadmoor’s Steve Bartolin to open his 60,000-square-foot conference center to the Housing and Building Association’s annual home and garden show. With its 6,000 attendees trampling through flooring, painting, plumbing and gardening exhibits, there just ain’t no way.
The problem might have been avoided if the push for an honest-to-goodness convention center had been better orchestrated and promoted more aggressively.
So here’s an idea: How about we build one now?
Paying for it will be as easy as imposing an ever-so-slightly higher lodging and rental-car tax. A few tourists might balk, but most won’t even notice it. Bartolin and others in the industry don’t like the idea, fearing it’ll drive business away. But one of the region’s leading economic thinkers believes otherwise.
“We could easily double our LART taxes without any fallout,” Tom Zwirlein, a professor of finance at the College of Business at UCCS, told tourism reporter Rebecca Tonn in last week’s Business Journal.
The LART, which is expected to raise $3.95 million this year, consists of a 2 percent lodging tax and 1 percent auto rental tax. It has been unchanged since 1995. Combined with city, state and county taxes, the total tax for renting a room in the Springs comes to 9.4 percent. Compared to Denver’s 14.85 percent, it’s a steal. The lodging portion of that tax is 10.75 percent for Denver, vs. 2 percent in the Springs.
Building a convention center isn’t a new idea. In fact, it received considerable debate about five years ago before being shelved by the City Council.
Had we gone ahead with construction at that time, there’s no doubt the center would have lost money amid the downturn. But we also would have seen thousands of building-trades jobs created during the construction phase, and the surrounding area would have seen new economic activity for years to come.
I think it’s also safe to predict that, with the additional convention business we surely would have drawn, hotels in our market — even those with their own meeting space — would have seen new business.
Washington, D.C., hotel interests understand the whole better-good argument well.
Earlier this week, ground was broken on a new $537-million convention center hotel in Washington. The hotel association says other hotels within walking distance of the center welcome the new competition. “(Hotel) managers have always been 100-percent behind this — all boats rise,” said Emily Durso, president of the association. “They’re big-picture guys. One new convention a year is $40 million (in additional) spending. So they all benefit.”
A lot will need to happen to make a convention center here a reality.
For starters, lining up political support will be critical. A few months from now, we’ll be voting on an almost entirely new slate of City Council members. Let’s be sure to support candidates with the backbone to stand up to the anti-everything, Doug Bruce contingent.
It also will be important that the language in any new tax measure clearly spell out that the dollars are to be used for tourism only. Hospitality marketing took a big hit this year after the cash-strapped city robbed the Convention and Visitors Bureau of part of its LART allocation.
Naysayers will object that this isn’t a good time for a community debate on anything that requires spending money. But it’s going to take at least a year or two before even a ballot measure can be presented to voters, let alone plans made for a ground-breaking.
Convention centers aren’t always money-makers. They have bad years amid the good. The Phil Long Center, which will soon be home to the Springs Church, lost money.
But it’s not hard to imagine conference planners scratching the 92,000-square-foot center from their lists because of its inadequate parking and location in north Colorado Springs, too far for conventioneers looking to spend down time in downtown.
So now we’re left with a center that’s about to close and some the area’s largest trade shows without a place to go.
Their best hopes? A vacant big-box retail location somewhere.
As a temporary fix, that might do. But it’s not going to work for a city with world-class ambitions.
Should Colorado Springs build a downtown convention center? Vote in the CSBJ Poll.
Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or 719-329-5206.