|By Jeremiah Stettler, The Salt Lake
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 4, 2009--Instead of bringing a brand-new hotel to the Salt Palace, a proposed land deal would bring a brand-new convention center to the hotels.
Earl Holding, owner of the Grand America and Little America hotels, has offered land at 500 South and Main for a new convention hub in downtown Salt Lake City -- right across the street from his two hotels.
The pitch -- admittedly a long shot, according to key officials -- comes as Salt Lake County leaders explore construction of a 1,000-room convention-headquarters hotel within easy walking distance of the Salt Palace. The lodging venue would provide fine dining, gift shops and about 90,000 square feet of meeting space.
The county may lean on taxpayers to build that hotel, hoping to capture conventions that, because of current inadequate lodging space, now travel elsewhere.
Mayor Peter Corroon didn't dismiss the idea of a new convention center outright, but described it as an "option to look at and nothing more."
"Anything that happens is a way off," Corroon said. "It is not an alternative we have thought of."
Holding's representative could not be reached for comment.
The notion of replacing the Salt Palace could prove a tough sell. Not only has the county pumped more than $173 million into the facility since its renovation in the early 1990s, but the Salt Palace also boasts an attractive commercial location linking The Gateway mall and the future City Creek Center.
"There is much more synergy going on around the current Salt Palace location," said Steve Lindburg, general manager of the Hilton Salt Lake City Center and a member of the Utah Board of Tourism Development. "Like the convention center hotel, something like this needs careful research. But, superficially, I'm not seeing many advantages."
Neither does the County Council's chairman, Joe Hatch, who says talks about replacing the Salt Palace are probably 10 to 15 years premature.
"There is an argument for expanding or adding to [the Salt Palace]," he said, "but not getting rid of it. It's not that old."
Although built in 1969, the Salt Palace underwent a massive overhaul in the early 1990s that included the demolition of the Acord Arena and the addition of expansive exhibit halls and meeting venues. Since then, the county has expanded the facility twice more.
Even so, the Salt Palace isn't entirely new. Managers say the building includes exhibition space that is decades old.
Scott Beck, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, declined to say whether the Salt Palace is ripe for replacement. Instead, he described Holding's offer as confirmation that a convention center, adjacent to a large-scale hotel, is the "next evolution" for conferencing in Utah's capital.
So what does he think of Holding's plan?
"This is clearly an off-the-wall proposal because no one has thought about it," Beck said. "But that doesn't mean it doesn't have value. They have brought forward an idea that gives us another perspective."
And so Holding's proposal will be scrutinized by the same advisory committee of county and state officials, hotel experts and community interest groups mulling a headquarters hotel. Corroon favors a hotel. The question is when.
"We need it," he said. "But can we afford it."
Early estimates have put that price tag at $250 million.
And a new Salt Palace? Who knows?
Salt Palace by the numbers:
-- $173 million -- Minimum amount Salt Lake County has invested in the building the past 15 years.
-- 908,000 -- People who attend annually.
-- 675,000 -- Square feet of floor space.
-- 1969 -- Year the original facility was built.
-- 1 -- Proposal by Earl Holding to build a new convention center.
Sources: Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau and Salt Lake County
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