$1.3 billion convention center expansion plan ignites ‘Downtown Puzzle’ but sparks fight

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After five years of community deliberation and research, Austin City Council threw unanimous support behind a convention center expansion; however, the path to a potential groundbreaking leads far into the future and relies on many bricklayers.

The existing convention center is a four-story, three-city-block monolith covering 881,000 square feet at 500 E. Cesar Chavez St. The oldest parts of the center date back to initial construction in 1992, while the newest parts were constructed through expansion in 2002.

The push for a larger convention center dates back to at least 2014 and has been led by the city’s hoteliers, a group that has  made sizable complaints over the years.

“This is a huge vote; we’ve been pushing for an expansion of the convention center for five years,” said Justin Bragiel, general counsel for the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association. “We’ve missed out on a lot of business that can’t come to Austin  because the convention center isn’t large enough.”

Between 2015-17, the convention center attracted annual averages of just over 500,000 attendees and about 285,000 hotel overnight stays, according to a recent comprehensive analysis by the University of Texas. The report showed the center lost about $18.7 million per year—something city officials say is normal—but regularly brings tens of millions of dollars per year into the local economy. An expansion could bring an annual stimulus of over $100 million, according to the report.

Through its unanimous support May 23, City Council wants to focus on the most dramatic expansion scenario proposed by the UT report—an estimated $1.3 billion project that would expand the center west across Trinity Street and subsequently replace the existing building with a more condensed structure. City Council committed that tourists, not taxpayers, would foot the bill through taxes on stays at hotels; however, the proposal has sparked opposition.

The ‘Downtown Puzzle’

City Council’s support of the expansion tied itself to a host of downtown Austin initiatives the mayor dubbed Austin’s “Downtown Puzzle” in 2016.

The program most dependent on the expansion relate to homelessness. In exchange for expansion, hoteliers have agreed to self-impose up to a 2% added tax on guests, creating a $4 million-$8 million cash flow committed to fighting homelessness, the city’s top priority.

Council’s May 23 resolution also calls for the preservation of the Palm School—a nearby old elementary school that served the formerly Mexican-American neighborhood until its closure in 1976. The school, owned by Travis County, has been identified as historically significant.

However, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the deal is far from inked.

“It’s taken a long time to get all these pieces moving in the same direction,” Adler said. “But up until the money is approved, nothing is guaranteed.”

Another petition battle

Although the vote from council was unanimous, the proposal has already drawn opponents.

Unconventional Austin, a political action committee formed days after council’s vote, has begun circulating a petition that aims to require a referendum for any expansion costing over $20 million and overhaul the city’s hotel occupancy tax revenue structure.

The PAC is led by Austin Creative Alliance CEO John Riedie, who is also a member of the city’s tourism commission. John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records, has also signed onto the petition.

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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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