After Mayor Steve Adler introduced his “downtown puzzle,” a complicated proposal that tied a proposed Austin Convention Center expansion to funding for homelessness, council voted in late 2017 to commission a team of University of Texas professors to study the economic impact, feasibility and potential design of an expanded convention center before any decisions were made.
More than a year later, that report is scheduled to come back to City Council at its Feb. 7 meeting and re-spark a debate that has boiled in the background for more than four years—is a convention center expansion worth it?
At 247,050 square feet, the exhibition space in Austin’s convention center runs less than half the size of what peer cities’ convention centers offer, which have an average size of 518,000 square feet, according to an Austin Convention Center master plan published in 2015. The same plan estimates a $400 million-$600 million price tag on an expansion.
Adler said the convention center is currently turning conventions away because it is overbooked. He said an expansion would further stimulate the local restaurant, retail and entertainment economy, and create a steady stream of homelessness funding through an agreement with local hoteliers that vowed to self-impose an additional tax on guests if the convention center were expanded.
The study, headed by the University of Texas School of Architecture’s Center for Sustainable Development, will look at the financial stability of convention centers, the feasibility of an expanded convention center in an urban environment and explore different design scenarios. The research team is led by Dean Almy, associate professor and director of the university’s urban design program, and includes help from other architecture and business school professors.
Adler said convention centers, across the board, often lose money but are purposed to generate tourism money and hotel occupancy taxes, which help pay for cultural arts and historic preservation initiatives in the city.
“No one expects a convention to make money from what it charges people to [use its space],” Adler said. “In fact, you give your convention center spaces away for free or at a reduced rate if a convention is going to bring in a lot of people. You expand a convention center because it drives the industries of tourism.”
District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents Austin’s downtown area, said the convention center has already created an inconvenience for pedestrians and is largely considered a relatively inactive part of downtown. She said she hopes expansion recommendations are not just about enlarging the building and work to integrate the space more into the “daily life of Austinites and those who are downtown.”