The past three weeks have been a roller-coaster ride for the San Diego Convention Center's management team as it awaits news of the fate of a long-proposed expansion, which on Aug. 8 failed to qualify for the November 2018 ballot However, there's still hope for the keeping the project alive and in front of voters. Earlier this week, the city announced that a joint agreement had been reached to extend the timeline for paying millions of dollars to the developer of the site for the planned 400,000-square-foot expansion.
In addition, San Diego County's Registrar of Voters has begun conducting a verification of all 114,000 signatures collected for a citizen's initiative to place the matter to a vote, to determine if the initiative would still be eligible for a future ballot. The registrar has until Sept. 20 to complete the verification. "If they get that done, then we can place the petition in front of the city council, who can then approve it for the ballot in 2020," said Clifford "Rip" Rippetoe, president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center Corp.
The citizen's initiative, which has the full support of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, proposed raising the city's hotel room tax from 12.5 percent to as much as 15.75 percent to pay for the convention center's expansion, which is estimated to cost around $850 million, as well as to fund road repairs and a program to address the city's growing homeless population.
According to Rippetoe, the center has a 75 percent to 77 percent occupancy rate, well above the national average of a percentage in the mid-60s. But he believes that the facility has the potential to draw much larger shows. "What we are losing out on is the opportunity to bring in even more shows and room nights that can add an economic impact to our community," he said. "We would be more successful with more space. And, as community leaders, we would not be doing our jobs if we didn't look at every way to create that economic impact business."
Even if the convention center expansion initiative makes it onto the 2020 ballot, San Diego would have lost another year of signing potential business, putting it further behind its backyard neighbors, Los Angeles and Anaheim, which have sharpened their competitive edge. Last September, the Anaheim Convention Center unveiled a 200,000-square-foot expansion, bringing its total exhibit space to 1.15 million square feet. And in May of this year, the Los Angeles Convention Center operator AEG proposed a major a $1.2 billion expansion of the center and the neighboring J.W. Marriott hotel. The expansion would tack on 350,000 square feet to the center, boosting its total size to more than 1.2 million square feet.
In a sense, the San Diego Convention Center is a victim of its own success, noted Rippetoe. Because the center is so busy, he said, it rarely has the opportunity to invite the public in to embrace the facility and truly understand its role in the community, which could have led to greater public support for the expansion. He intends to change that. "We are doing an outreach program of finding opportunities and activities to get to the public," said Rippetoe. "We are doing a lot more tours, school activities and events like yoga on the terrace. We want them to be able to touch and feel what's going on inside."