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The $62.2 million McAllen (Texas) Convention Center Roundly
 Criticized for Excessive Rates, Poor Management

By James Osborne, The Monitor, McAllen, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 11, 2008 - MCALLEN -- Mayor Richard Cortez assured event promoters Monday he would examine the management of the McAllen Convention Center.

The new venue has been roundly criticized for charging excessive rates that could force many trade shows and charity events to relocate.

"I assure you your comments are not falling on deaf ears; clearly, we have some work to do," Cortez told a roomful of event promoters and charity organizers at a McAllen City Commission meeting.

During the meeting, attendees ran down a laundry list of complaints -- from rates they described as higher than convention centers in Corpus Christi or San Antonio, to unreturned phone calls from the venue's staff to banquets where salad greens were actually brown.

Complaints were often delivered to raucous applause.

"You're getting ready to price yourselves right out of the business," said Quincy Barnes, president of SMC Events, based in San Antonio. "And every time I call, the policies and procedures change. You need to establish what exactly the rules are."

Promoters negotiate individual contract rates with the convention center, usually over a multi-year period.

Barnes, who puts on the Rio Grande Valley Garden Show and the Rio Grande Valley Motorcycle Show, said he paid $14,500 to rent the center's exhibition hall last year but he was now looking at a rate of about $24,000.

Renting a slightly larger space for three days at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio would cost between $18,000 and $27,000, according to that center's Web site.

McAllen, which lacks the entertainment draws of well-known convention destinations like San Antonio and Las Vegas, built the $62.2 million convention center with the expectation of attracting more cost-conscious convention organizers.

"You don't have a beach; you don't have a river walk. You have to be more sensitive to the rates," Barnes said.

Lisa Conner, who organizes training sessions for the Region One Education Service Center, echoed those comments.

"The pricing is an issue for us; it's about 40 percent more than we were paying on South Padre Island," she said. "And honestly, a lot of our clients would prefer to go to South Padre Island."

The only praise at the meeting was from the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, which books conventions from outside the Valley.

Those events are often given considerable subsidies, due to the business they bring to McAllen in terms of hotel occupancy and conventioneers eating out, said McAllen Convention Center Director Omar Rodriguez.

"We knew there was going to be a sticker shock when we moved from the old facility to the new facility," said McAllen Chamber of Commerce President Steve Ahlenius.

"But overall the center's turned out great. I hear nothing but positive things."

For decades, trade shows and events like the annual Rotary Crawfish Boil set up in the McAllen Civic Center, which charged about 60 percent less than the new convention center. Charity groups and non-profits are given a 20-percent discount, but the costs are still too high, said Pat Risica, who organizes the crawfish boil.

Rodriguez, who took over the convention center's operation in April, said he and his staff were already reviewing the rate structure and staffing needs and he expected some resolution shortly.

Rodriguez took over for John Sellers, who retired from the city after being hired in 2005 to run the convention center. On Monday, Cortez hinted Sellers' departure was not unwelcome.

"We opened the convention center with a person we thought had the experience, but that turned out to be wrong," the mayor said.

____

James Osborne covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4428.

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To see more of The Monitor, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.themonitor.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Monitor, McAllen, Texas

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