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Biggest Money Making Conference at the Tucson Convention Center Moving to Phoenix
 After 33 Consecutive Years in Tucson; Cites Lack of Downtown Hotel Rooms

By Christie Smythe, The Arizona Daily Star, TucsonMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Mar. 10, 2007 - The biggest money-making conference at the Tucson Convention Center is moving to Phoenix after 33 consecutive years in Tucson because of a lack of hotel rooms Downtown and other problems.

"Tucson was simply not responding to the need," said Jim Voss , managing director of WM Symposia Inc. , which organizes the Waste Management Symposium.

The annual conference on the management of radioactive waste attracts about 2,500 attendees from 35 countries. The most recent symposium ended March 1.

Voss said he'd asked city officials for years to help provide more hotel accommodations, restaurants and other amenities within walking distance of the convention center. He had hoped for years the Rio Nuevo Downtown revitalization program would bring necessary improvements, but he saw no progress.

"We really didn't want to leave Tucson," Voss said, adding, "Eventually you reach a point where you either put up with a situation, or you leave it."

Jonathan Walker , president and CEO of the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau said he has been aware of the symposium's concerns "and we have been doing everything we possibly could to address those."

The conference pumps an estimated $2 million into the local economy, Walker said. That falls far behind the estimated $76.5 million
brought by Tucson's largest trade event, the Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase, according to the convention and visitors bureau.

However, the Waste Management Symposium was the convention center's largest revenue producer, said Director Rich Singer. He added that the convention center hosts only five major shows including the Waste Management conference, two gem conventions and two home shows.

"Other than that, we attract very little in terms of the convention business," Singer said. "That's because our facilities and our hotels don't attract conventions."

Both Walker and Mayor Bob Walkup said they did not consider the Waste Management Symposium's decision an indication that any other conferences or conventions may leave Tucson in the future.

"We're seeing good, steady growth in tourism and conventions," Walkup said. "We're still encouraged that we're doing the right thing."

Each year, Waste Management Symposium participants have largely been scattered in hotels and resorts throughout Tucson, necessitating the use of rental cars and taxis for transportation -- which was sometimes difficult for attendees who spoke limited English, Voss said.

Air travel was also a problem, he said. Flights to Phoenix are often easier to find and less expensive for attendees than flights to Tucson, he said. And because of a perennial shortage of rental cars in Tucson, many attendees flew to Phoenix to be able to rent cars, he said.

"It's very difficult on these people," Voss said.

Conference participants able to stay near the convention center at The Hotel Arizona, 181 W. Broadway found their accommodations in serious need of improvement, he said. Attendees reported numerous maintenance issues, including peeling wallpaper, malfunctioning air conditioners, and, in one case, a shower head falling out of a wall while an attendee was using it.

"We have been struggling for some years to get upgrades" to the hotel, Voss said. "Management of that hotel is not particularly interested in making investments to improve that property."

Formerly operated as the Radisson City Center, the Hotel Arizona is owned by Humberto Lopez , of HSL Properties, at 3901 E. Broadway. Calls to HSL Properties Friday were not returned.

A Lopez-led partnership has proposed a $185 million, city-aided redevelopment of the property.

Under the plan, Lopez's partnership would act as a developer working for the city to refurbish the existing hotel and build new 16- and 22-story towers that would add 400 new hotel rooms.

Voss said he used to be optimistic the Rio Nuevo Downtown revitalization program would help remedy problems for the conference by providing funding for renovations to The Hotel Arizona and creating other hotel rooms Downtown. But so far, he has been disappointed.

"I have not been seeing any investment in the hotel properties," he said.

Walkup said he expects to see renovations to the convention center and more hotel rooms Downtown through Rio Nuevo in the coming years.

"We're working on it, and we'll get there," he said. "It's just too bad we couldn't get there for them," he said.

The Waste Management Symposium is the world's largest conference focusing on the management of radioactive waste. It attracts 2,500 energy officials and industry members from all over the world. It was started more than 30 years ago in Tucson and was originally affiliated with the University of Arizona, according to Jim Voss, managing director of nonprofit WM Symposia Inc. , which now runs the conference.

--Contact reporter Christie Smythe at 434-4083 or at csmythe@azstarnet.com.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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