BETHESDA – Soon, a field behind the White Flint Metro station will be a focus for Maryland’s economic development.
The land has been chosen as the site for a new convention center, one of three the state is working to build or enlarge. Father north, work continues on the Baltimore Convention Center expansion. On the coast, Ocean City’s convention center will be expanded and renovated over the next two years.
By footing part of the bill for these three projects, the public sector is trying to give the private sector a boost.
“With the federal cutbacks and state cutbacks, we need to find ways to bring in jobs and money into Maryland,” said Bruce Hoffman, executive for the Maryland Stadium Authority, which oversees the convention centers.
While the three won’t compete with one another, they will compete regionally or nationally for a chunk of the booming industry.
“The convention business is definitely growing,” said Lalia Rach, economics professor at New York University. “Conventions tend to be less expensive for a company rather than sending the salesmen to remote destinations all the time.”
And when groups hold meetings, the conventioneers bring money. A survey last year by the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus said that a convention delegate spends an average of $180 per day among hotels, travel, entertainment and retail shopping.
A successful convention center will promote the building, the area and its staff, Rach said. As in real estate, location is everything.
“The question is whether they will have the destination to market properly,” she said. “There are probably too many convention centers….It’s a highly competitive market out there.”
In Texas, Amarillo hails its convention center as a boon to the city’s economy. After struggling to find business during the late 1970s, the center now sponsors more than 50 conventions with 78,000 delegates each year — bringing in more than $23 million annually, according to the local visitors bureau.
“It has really been great for the whole city,” said Mayor Kel Seliger.
Officials in Ocean City say expansion will help attract bigger groups. “We want to stay competitive for the larger conventions,” said Evie Pedulla, sales director at the Ocean City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A study by the Maryland Stadium Authority paints a rosy picture for the convention center’s future. It predicts an average of 32 conventions each year, up from the current 20.
With these predictions comes the issue of competition. Pedulla said that Ocean City would compete with other beach resort areas, mentioning Virginia Beach, Va. and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Nevertheless, officials from those sites said they did not anticipate a dropoff in business with Ocean City’s expansion.
Also hoping to profit is Montgomery County, where plans were unveiled last month for a 50,000 square foot meeting room and 300-room hotel and exhibition hall in Bethesda. The state hopes to get final local approval by the end of the year.
County officials have publicly supported the project. “It will boost the local economy by providing jobs, generating tax revenue and stimulating spending,” said Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan.
The center will target corporations and training organizations, bringing in an estimated $25 million annually and employing up to 1,200 people.
Cities elsewhere have looked to convention centers to revive an economy. Milwaukee is one example.
The convention center there had lost some business because of its size. “We’ve had a tougher time competing against cities like Kansas City and St. Louis because they have had a bigger space,” said Maggie Jacobins of the Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau.
This year, the city broke ground on an expansion to double the space in the Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena, paying for the project with an increase in the hotel and motel tax.
Baltimore is counting on similar results from its expansion.
“We’ve been forced to turn away conventions, and it’s not good business to turn away customers,” said the Stadium Authority’s Hoffman.
The Baltimore Convention Center has been financially successful since it opened, Hoffman said. Bonds were issued to pay for the building with a 14-year repayment schedule. But through the tax on hotels and motels, the center retired the debt in just over 10 years, Hoffman said.
The new building, to be completed in September 1996, will host conventions right away. Renovation of the original center should be finished by April 1997, allowing for three times the convention business handled now.
And the business is there for the groups that hustle, officials say. “We could get a different convention in here every day of the year,” said Milwaukee’s Jacobins. “It’s that kind of market.” -30-