Group opposing Austin Convention Center expansion says it has enough signatures for November public vote

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The question of whether an expansion of the Austin Convention Center should depend on a public vote moved one step closer July 12 to landing on this November’s election ballot after a group submitted a petition they say has more than 30,000 signatures from Austinites who want a say in the process.

Quickly after Austin City Council voted in May to explore a potential $1.3 billion expansion of the city’s downtown convention center, political action committee Unconventional Austin was formed in opposition. Hired canvassers showed up on street corners and community events, collecting signatures in support of a two-part citizen-initiated ordinance. The first part would require a public vote for any expansion of the convention center exceeding $20 million; the second part would adjust the formula on how much of the city’s hotel tax revenue—collected from local taxes on hotel overnight stays—is spent on the convention center.

On July 12, Unconventional Austin representatives said they submitted that petition to the city clerk with more than 30,000 signatures. A city spokesperson confirmed the submission; however, the true number of signatures will remain unknown until the city has counted and validated that the signatures belong to actual Austinites who are eligible to vote.

“The people of Austin deserve a vote on an expansion of the convention center, we are talking about well over $1 billion,” Rebecca Melancon, Executive Director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance said in a press release. “We voted on the original convention center, we voted on the first expansion, and we should vote on future expansions.”

A process that has become familiar in recent years will now unfold—a number of petitions pushing citizen-initiated ordinances have come across the city clerk’s desk recently, dealing with hot topics such as the land development code and the planned Major League Soccer stadium in North Austin.

The petition needs only 20,000 signatures to become validated. Once validated, City Council will have the option to adopt the ordinance as written in the petition. However, if a majority do not agree with the petition’s intent—several council members and the mayor have come out against this specific petition—the city has until Aug. 19 to call an election and put the question to a public vote. Council’s last scheduled meeting before the deadline is Aug. 8, but council members could call a special meeting at any time before the Aug. 19 deadline.

If placed on the ballot, one part of the question Austinites will vote on in November is whether they think the public should be able to vote on a convention center expansion exceeding $20 million. If a majority of Austinites agree, then another election would be held in the future on whether the city should expand the convention center.

The second part to the question Austinites will potentially vote on in November is whether they agree that the city should only be allowed to spend 34% of its hotel tax on the convention center. Currently, the city spends roughly 70% on the convention center and 15% each on cultural arts and historic preservation.

Unconventional Austin did not respond to Community Impact Newspaper inquiries as of press time about how those two questions would appear to voters in November.

“By balancing and diversifying our tourism strategy away from an outdated convention subsidies model, we can better protect the things that make Austin culturally authentic and created our tourism boom in the first place,” John Riedie a member of Austin’s Tourism Commission and head of Unconventional Austin said in a media release.

Although Unconventional Austin contends that the city could increase its expenditures on cultural arts and historic preservation, Austin’s elected officials have pushed back on this, saying state law prevents them spending more than 15%.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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