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Pittsburgh's New Convention Center Has 28 Conventions Scheduled for 2004; Efforts
Hampered Lack of "Headquarters" Hotel
By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Dec. 29, 2003 - For the first time ever, the National Rifle Association is bringing its annual convention to Pittsburgh this spring. 

About 50,000 people are expected to descend on the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for the meeting, running from April 16-20. It marks the first time since the NRA began holding annual conventions in 1948 that it has chosen Pittsburgh as the site. 

The NRA conference is one of 28 conventions or meetings scheduled so far next year at the new convention center, in its first full year of operation, according to the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

Attendance is projected at 134,600 for those events, a big jump over this year's turn out of 76,725. In all, 29 groups held events at the convention center in 2003. With a full 12 months ahead of them to land others, visitors bureau officials expect to easily beat that number in 2004. 

In 2000, the last full year of the old convention center's operation, Pittsburgh drew 30 conventions, but total attendance did not hit 56,000 people. 

Visitors bureau officials said the higher attendance figures for 2003 and 2004 are a testament to the new convention center, which is nearly triple the size of the old building. 

With public events such as the annual home and garden and auto shows thrown into the mix, the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority estimates that total attendance next year will be 435,115 people, or almost 35,000 more than this year. 

That is more than double the 211,429 people who attended events in 2002. 

In addition, the SEA estimates that total visits next year -- multiple trips to the convention center by the same person -- will reach 831,745, compared to 582,534 this year and 211,429 in 2002. 

So far, the NRA convention will be the largest to be held in Pittsburgh next year. The visitors bureau estimated that 20,000 people will attend the conference. But the NRA believes that as many as 50,000 people will show up for three days of meetings, exhibits and activities. That will be followed by two days of board of director meetings, according to the preliminary schedule. 

This year, the annual meeting drew nearly 43,000 people and a record 381 exhibitors to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. 

NRA spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs said the association selected Pittsburgh for its 2004 convention because it has a "very large concentration of members within driving distance of the city." 

Hobbs said the majority of those who attend the annual meeting drive. The NRA expects to draw people not only from Pennsylvania, but from Ohio, West Virginia and New York as well. 

"That's why we expect such a large number of attendees," she said. 

During the convention, exhibitors will hawk everything from clothing to firearms. In addition to meetings, receptions and exhibits, attendees will have a chance to test their skills at an air gun range. 

According to a recap of the 2003 convention on the NRA Web site, Vice President Dick Cheney tentatively is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Pittsburgh conference. The annual meetings usually draw top-flight entertainment as well. In 2003, country star Toby Keith performed, as did the Oak Ridge Boys. 

The NRA is not the only group bringing a large contingent to Pittsburgh next year. Among the other conventions and meetings are Women of Faith, expected attendance 15,000; the American Numismatic Association, 12,000; United Chess Federation, 6,000; United Methodist Church, 6,000; Quilts Inc., 5,500, and Rite Aid Corp., 5,000. 

However, Pittsburgh will not be one of the sites for a presidential debate next year. The Commission on Presidential Debates bypassed Pittsburgh, which was one of 14 potential locations, in making its final selections. 

Instead, it selected the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., for the first debate, Washington University in St. Louis for the second, and Arizona State University in Tempe, for the third. The vice presidential debate will be held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. 

Visitors bureau President Joseph R. McGrath said the commission gave no reason for bypassing Pittsburgh. 

"We believe they've established pretty much a campus format. We were the only city bidding and I believe that played a role," he said. 

Commission officials could not be reached for comment. 

While McGrath declared himself "delighted" over the line-up and attendance for 2004 meetings and conventions, he said 2005 could be a tougher year. He said his agency's efforts continue to be hampered by the lack of a "headquarters" hotel near the convention center. 

He said there are more than 150 hotels in the United States with at least 1,200 rooms. For the visitors bureau to come up with that many rooms locally, it has to use three hotels, McGrath said. 

"That's what we're hearing over and over again -- the room concentration near the center," he said. "It's having a comparable product, but it's also the expense incurred if you have to hire shuttle buses." 

City, county and sports authority officials are hoping to build a 500-room hotel adjacent to the convention center, but they still are short about $13 million in funding to make it happen. 

Authority Executive Director Stephen Leeper has said that the hotel could be dead without the creation of a third-party revenue source to fill that gap. He has been lobbying the state Legislature to include money for the hotel in any slots gambling bill approved by the General Assembly. 

However, legalizing slots in Pennsylvania appears to be iffy at the moment, although Gov. Ed Rendell is hoping to get the issue back on the front burner when the Legislature returns from its holiday break in January. 

Leeper said he is still hoping slots gambling becomes a reality. Asked if the lack of action by the Legislature before the recess was a setback, he replied, "Obviously, the sooner it gets done the better." 

But he disputed McGrath's contention that the lack of a headquarters hotel was hampering convention business. 

He said that by spring, there would be 800 hotel rooms available near the convention center. That would be at the existing Westin Convention Center hotel and at a new 183-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel scheduled to open this spring. 

Leeper said the 317-room Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel on Sixth Street also is within walking distance and that a new 198-room Marriott SpringHill Suites hotel is under construction across the river on the North Shore. 

"We're making progress with additional rooms in the city. I think everybody recognizes the need for a headquarters hotel and we're working very hard to do that," he said. 

But he added the lack of a hotel should not be an insurmountable obstacle in attracting conventions. 

"This is a short-term problem that we will resolve. I think we should spend our time selling the great asset that we have in this city," he said. 

-----To see more of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2003, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. RAD, MAR, 


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