Austin Convention Center town hall A proposal for the expansion of the downtown Austin Convention Center is expected to be voted upon by Austin City Council later this year.[/caption]

A new coalition made up of Austinites from the music, arts, technology and business industries expressed its support for the expansion of the Austin Convention Center in a statement released today.

The coalition, calling itself A New Vision for Austin’s Convention Center, announced its support for the expansion, claiming a bigger convention center is the key to solving the downtown puzzle.

The Austin Convention Center, located at Cesar Chavez and Trinity streets in the southeast corner of downtown, currently has 247,050 square feet of exhibit space, placing the facility well below its competitors in cities such as Houston, Denver and Nashville, according to the center’s long-range master plan.

Expansion talks have been ongoing for almost three years, and since that time the Austin Convention Center has lost more business because of booking conflicts or lack of space, according to data, resulting in lost business increasing from 34 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 50 percent in fiscal year 2016.

Several members of the coalition—including former Austin Mayor Lee Cooke, Building Owners and Management Association member Mary Guerrero-McDonald, Austin architect Girard Kinney and John Bernardoni, who helped restore the Paramount Theatre—have previously voiced their support for expansion during ongoing Visitor Impact Task Force meetings.

Designed to examine how best to use the city's hotel occupancy taxes, the task force has been meeting since January and gathering input from various Austin departments and groups that are affected by tourism.

Other stakeholders, including downtown hoteliers, have also expressed support for an expansion.

"We’re turning away opportunities, and we’re letting other cities capitalize on it because our convention center is too small,” said Drew McQuade, the general manager at the downtown W Austin Hotel, during a March task force meeting.

There is no set timeline for the expansion if it is approved by Austin City Council. The expansion plan includes a total of 447,450 square feet of exhibition space, 120,800 square feet of meeting space and 120,600 of ballroom space, according to the long-range master plan.

“Our residents who work in the tourism and hospitality industry include countless small business employees, as well as artists and musicians who depend upon this income,” said Bernardoni, a steering committee member, in a statement announcing the coalition. “It’s important for Austinites to know that we all benefit in revenue generated from the tourism industry.”

Bill Bunch, who heads the water protection nonprofit Save Our Springs Alliance, has repeatedly attended task force meetings to call for a thorough examination of the convention center's finances and projections before an expansion is approved.

"My bottom line is to encourage all of you to direct as much of this [hotel occupancy tax] money to the people and places that make Austin worth visiting, and to the people and places that are most in danger of being run over or driven out of town by our hyper growth that we’re experiencing and suffering from but also benefiting from, including the rapidly increasing hotel fund,"he told task force members at a Jan. 31 meeting.

The Austin Convention Center has already presented to City Council several options for how to pay for the expansion. One option, which would allocate an estimated $397 million for expansion, involves asking citizens to vote on whether to redirect hotel occupancy tax revenue currently used to pay down debt from the 2002 expansion.

The other option involves raising the hotel occupancy tax rate, which currently sits at 15 percent, by up to 2 percent—reaching the maximum HOT tax rate allowed by the state.  This would generate an estimated $609 million toward the expansion and other tourism-related projects such as historic preservation and Austin’s cultural arts.

With either option, there will not be any increases to local property taxes.

Several stakeholders have spoken at task force meetings about the importance of leaving the street grid open if the convention center expands. While there are no approved expansion designs, several options call for access to Second and Third streets to be shut down.

"The street blocks need to be maintained," said Kinney, who helped design the current downtown street grid, at a Feb. 28 task force meeting. "I think the convention center does need to be expanded. The most important thing is when you do it, you do it right."

Tom Noonan, president of the Austin Convention and Visitor's Bureau that markets the city, said he was glad the coalition had been formed.

Discussion on the expansion of the convention center has come up numerous times in Visitor Impact Task Force meetings, which Noonan and Austin Convention Center President Mark Tester sit on.

"The center should a part of [the task force] conversation," Noonan said.