Smaller convention centers: a thriving market

August 01, 2003 |

Smaller convention centers with 100,000 sq. ft. or less of exhibit space represent an active sector of the nonresidential building industry.

With the majority of the U.S. population now living in the suburbs, Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute, sees this as a trend that logically follows the decentralization of other types of facilities, such as performing arts centers.

Particularly in the largest metropolitan areas, convention centers have become enormous, Beyard notes. "A smaller meeting that may have fit well into an older convention center 10 years ago now gets put in a corner where it could get lost," he says.

Factors cited for the attention that smaller, outlying convention facilities are receiving include an increase in the number of regional shows following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a desire to reduce costs.

Smaller cities are seeing economic benefits that larger cities are enjoying, and they want a piece of the action, says Jack Plaxco, a principal with architect Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, Atlanta.

The size and functional layout of a facility depend on market conditions in the community, Plaxco notes. A market consultant generally is retained to weigh factors such as whether the facility should be meeting-intensive or trade-show intensive. The most common financing approach is for a public entity to sell bonds, using a portion of a hotel/motel tax to retire them.

Plaxco says a convention center should be located near hotels and entertainment venues. Convention centers should provide "hotel quality" space and finishes, because they may be competing with hotels for convention business.

Illustrating the desirability of an adjoining hotel, the Bellevue, Wash., convention center authority has decided to tie the enlargement of its Meydenbauer Center, which has 48,000-sq. ft of exhibit space, to the construction of an adjacent hotel. A convention center that is not within easy walking distance of a hotel will have difficulty attracting rotating events that provide the greatest economic impact, says John Kaatz, a partner with Minneapolis-based consultant Conventions, Sports & Leisure International.

The Overland Park (Kan.) Convention Center reflects a desirable mix of functions. In addition to providing 60,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, a 25,000-sq.-ft. ballroom, and 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, it is connected to a hotel.

Rebuilding on a larger scale

Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport was the motivating factor for neighboring College Park, Ga., to build its original convention center in 1985, and a new larger facility that opened this year. An airport runway now under construction will pass through the former convention center site. The new 400,000 sq. ft. Georgia International Convention Center, designed by Atlanta-based architect Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates and constructed by Holder Construction Co., has 150,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, 38,000 sq. ft. more than the former facility.

Kansas City-based A/E HNTB was architect for the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Ia., which is literally within eyesight of the soon-to-open Omaha Convention Center on the opposite side of the Missouri River. The Omaha facility will offer 194,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. Mid-America Center, which opened earlier this year, incorporates a 25,000-sq.-ft. exhibit hall and a 25,000-sq.-ft. ballroom, as well as a 7,500-sq.-ft. arena that serves as the venue for a minor league hockey team. These three elements are designed to be used independently, or in combination.

Adjacent to Mid-America Center is a 166,000-sq.-ft. retail complex, and a hotel and multiplex theater are under construction. The center is being funded by the Southwest Iowa Foundation, which represents the three casinos operating in Council Bluffs, and by the city.

At the Gwinnett Civic & Cultural Center in Duluth, Ga., a new 74,000-sq.-ft. ballroom designed by Atlanta-based A/E Rosser International can augment an existing 100,000 sq. ft of exhibit space. The complex also includes a Rosser-designed arena that can accommodate trade show and convention activity, although it more typically serves as a venue for sports and musical events. The arena is flexible enough to host as many as 11,300 for a hockey game or as few as 3,500 for a theatrical production.

Kaatz cites a trend that is blurring the line between small convention centers, many which have less than 50,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, and hotels that decide to incorporate a larger amount of exhibit space. Hotels are looking at the option of partnering with a developer and taking advantage of tax-increment financing and the ability of public entities to issue tax-exempt bonds, he says.

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