|By Will Higgins, The Indianapolis Star|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 15, 2005 - About 500 hospitality industry workers and their supporters rallied in the Indiana Statehouse on Monday to urge lawmakers to fund an expansion of the Indiana Convention Center. A proposal, backed by the Indiana Convention and Visitors Bureau, would add 375,000 square feet of space to the facility, nearly doubling its size. It would cost about $275 million.
About a dozen people -- from hotel doormen to business executives -- spoke briefly to the crowd, each signing off with the slogan, given them by the ICVA: ". . . and I say, Fund it now!"
They and other backers say the convention center expansion is a necessary component of a new stadium for the Colts. An expanded convention center would allow Indianapolis to host more and larger conventions. Many large conventions require the use of a football stadium-sized space.
Said ICVA spokesman Bob Schultz: "We need to emphasize a point that seems to have gotten not enough attention: the stadium and the convention center are one project."
ICVA officials say they have lost several large conventions to other cities because the groups have outgrown Indianapolis' exhibit space. They say that while they would not expect ground to be broken on a convention center expansion until 2007, it's important the project be funded immediately because planning a convention takes time. ICVA staffers now are pitching their facility to convention organizers for 2010. The expansion would be to the south, filling the space now occupied by the RCA Dome, assuming the Dome is demolished to make room for a new Colts stadium.
While proponents see the two projects as linked, the Colts have fared better than the convention folk in the current session of the Indiana General Assembly. A House bill to raise the money for the expansion failed to get a hearing. In a subsequent House bill, the funding mechanisms the earlier bill proposed -- additional taxes and fees on hotel and car rentals, ticket sales, luxury suites and Colts players' salaries -- were appropriated for the proposed $500 million Colts stadium.
"The Colts are sexier. They have star power," said John Livengood, president of the Restaurant & Hospitality Association of Indiana, as he sat at Monday's rally, hoisting an ICVA-issued placard that said: "Convention Center Yes Stadium."
"The convention center is an economic development/business issue, and it's not going to get the kind of attention as professional football," he said. "But it's more important to the community from a dollars-and-cents point of view."
It was a curious sight, so many hospitality workers in uniform, chanting "Fund it now!" in unison. There were chefs in chef hats, hotel desk workers in starched white shirts and bow ties, and doormen, dressed like generals of some foreign army.
Many of them rallied while on the clock from their employers. "My boss asked me if I wanted to be a part of this, and I said yes," said Nate Green, the Canterbury Hotel's bell captain. "This is about jobs."
"I'm happy to be here," said William Selm, a doorman at the Westin Hotel. "I understand the importance of the convention center."
Legislators next take up the matter this morning at a hearing before the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee. The committee's chairman, Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, didn't attend Monday's rally but is sympathetic. "We need to fund the stadium, and we need to fund the convention center," he said. "We need to deal with the situation as a package. I think they go hand in hand, and I think we're going to get it done."
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