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The Annual Two Week "Gem Show" Putting Pressure on Tucson to
 Upgrade the Convention Center and Build a New Downtown Hotel


By Dan Sorenson, The Arizona Daily Star, TucsonMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 8, 2009--The head of one of the largest shows that make up the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase said Wednesday that he doesn't have any specific offers to move the show to another city.

But he again warned the City Council this week -- as he had in February -- that he won't rule out moving the show until he sees actual work on a new downtown hotel and improvements to the Tucson Convention Center.

Douglas Hucker, executive of the American Gem Trade Association, said he told the council Tuesday, "If we do not see progress on a hotel and upgrading of the Convention Center, we will leave."

Hucker said he wouldn't characterize that as a threat but as an expression of "utmost concern."

The city has a 25-year contract with the American Gem Trade Association that renews annually. Hucker wouldn't say how soon his company might act to leave if physical work did not start on the projects, or how long it would take to change locations after a decision was made.

"We haven't had any offers from anyone," Hucker said of his comments that Las Vegas and Phoenix had expressed an interest in hosting the show.

"The question was, who would be the players? We've had people talk to us. We're not at the specific stage where there are any specific offers."

He said the action taken by the city, so far, looks good on paper. But Hucker said he's not convinced that it will turn into a new downtown hotel or an improved Tucson Convention Center.

"I don't pretend to understand all the intricate machinations of the city government," Hucker said of the progress toward those goals. "It depends who you're talking to whether it's going forward or (at a) dead stop."

Work on a new entrance on the east side of the TCC is under way, as is archaeological and soil-sampling work needed before work on the hotel can start, TCC sales and marketing manager Kate Breck-Calhoun said Wednesday. She said she is posting daily photos of the work on a TCC Facebook site (Tucson Convention Ctr) and Twitter account (tcctucson).

The Sheraton Hotel would be on top of the TCC Grand Lobby on the west side, said Breck-Calhoun.

Hucker said he came to Tucson from Dallas specifically to address the City Council and that he was encouraged, despite the comments he made.

"They want to stay," Mayor Bob Walkup said. He said Hucker's group stayed with Tucson throughout the years of work on the downtown frontage road and then the Interstate 10 construction.

"They've been with us the whole time," Walkup said. "Now, he's saying, is not the time to falter as we approach the goal. I get it. The council gets it," Walkup said of the importance of the TCC improvements and building the hotel.

"I'm not worried about the gem show coming up in February of '10," Walkup said. "I'm worried if they don't see the groundbreaking of a hotel in March and Convention Center modernization, that the (AGTA) board is going to actively" look for a new home for its show.

Walkup said Hucker's comments weren't an empty threat.

"I know him well enough to know he wants to stay in Tucson," Walkup said. "(But) there are many cities around the country that have large convention hotels that are sitting semi-empty."

Walkup said hurdles yet to be cleared in the hotel project include financial analysis based on projected occupancy rates and market conditions for the period in late winter and early spring when the project bonds would be issued.

"That's going to go on between now and November and the early part of December, when the council will get a review of the financial evaluation and design work of the hotel. The design work is going on, I assure you.

"The early part of the year (January and February) will be when we sit down with all these things and consider 'Can we afford this and how will we pay for this?' " he said.

Despite a third-tier rating on bonds issued for the TCC work that's now under way, Walkup said, "It's still OK. In today's market (that rating) is good enough to get a good rate. Not as good as AAA, but we're still OK."

DID YOU KNOW

When it started in 1955, the gem show was mostly minerals from Arizona, Mexico and California shown by a small group of hobbyists.

The show was started by the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society, and the first one was held at Helen Keeling Elementary School.

The show expanded to three days in 1958 and moved to what is now called the Tucson Convention Center in 1970, Star archives show.

It's now a premier cash pump. The show put $100 million into the local economy in 2007, says the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Contact reporter Dan Sorenson at 573-4185 or dsorenson@azstarnet.com

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To see more of The Arizona Daily Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.azstarnet.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

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