|By Jeremy Boren and Mike Wereschagin, The
Pittsburgh Tribune-ReviewMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 11, 2012--Tourism officials are reviving a campaign to attach a mega-hotel to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, saying it's the only way Pittsburgh can compete with other cities that are luring lucrative conventions with the promise of plentiful rooms for visitors.
New leaders at the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau, known as VisitPittsburgh, told Tribune-Review reporters and editors on Tuesday that they hope to capitalize on growing demand for hotel rooms and a series of travel magazine accolades heralding Pittsburgh as a tourist destination.
"People will say to us, 'You have 4,000 rooms Downtown, isn't that good enough?' The answer is, yes, but we're competing against other cities, and we rank amongst the bottom in terms of concentrations of hotel rooms right around the convention center," said Craig Davis, who took over as VisitPittsburgh's president and CEO in March.
Davis conceded that building such a hotel with necessary amenities would likely involve public subsidies, although the cost is unknown. He said other cities had to use tax money, too.
Critics caution that building a large hotel won't negate the incentives that other big cities that are hungry for tourism dollars offer to lock in major conventions.
"Is it nice to have a big new hotel next door? Sure. Is a big new hotel a guarantee of new business? No. You still face the reality of the national market," said Heywood Sanders, a public policy professor at the University of Texas San Antonio who studies the convention industry.
Pittsburgh is competing for conventions with cities such as Baltimore, Indianapolis and Columbus, which plans to open a 532-room Hilton this fall connected to its convention center.
Jason Fulvi, VisitPittsburgh's executive vice president, said out-of-towners expect a short one- or two-block walk from convention halls to their hotel rooms.
The 616-room Westin Convention Center Hotel, which is connected by an elevated walkway to the convention center, is the closest option Downtown.
Another hotel of 700 rooms at the foot of the convention center would offer a complex of more than 1,300 rooms, enough to ensure a sizable bloc is available to groups booking conventions, VisitPittsburgh argues.
Recently, many of those attending the National Society of Black Engineers convention stayed in hotels from Downtown to Green Tree, running up a transportation bill of nearly $200,000, Fulvi said. Up to 10,000 people were expected to attend the convention.
Fulvi keeps a tally of ones that got away. If a convention organizer is considering Pittsburgh, but decides against it, he asks why, and records their answer. According to his data, the county lost out on 600,000 room-nights since 2003 because it didn't have a mega-hotel -- the second most-cited reason behind the city's geographic location.
Tourism and development officials around the country have used similar arguments in their pitches for larger convention centers and hotels.
The results, have been mixed, Sanders said. Leaders "from Chicago, down to St. Louis to Omaha to Phoenix" argue that "all we need is this one thing, and our convention business will boom," Sanders said.
The state law that legalized gambling in Pennsylvania earmarked $34 million for a convention center hotel in Pittsburgh, and even that wasn't enough to seal the deal for developers, Sanders said. Cities bent on constructing these hotels sometimes end up financing them with municipal bonds, like the convention centers they're attached to, he said.
In Phoenix, that resulted in a $350 million taxpayer-funded hotel owned by a public entity -- the Downtown Phoenix Hotel Corp. -- that reported a $42.8 million deficit in 2011.
Davis said Pittsburgh's convention center, which opened in 2003, has a ballroom and heating, cooling and water treatment systems to serve a large hotel that could fit in a space occupied by parking lots at the center's "front door" near the intersection of Penn Avenue and the 10th Street Bypass.
He estimated a hotel of high enough quality would cost $200,000 per room. That would put the cost at about $140 million.
He said VisitPittsburgh will lobby elected officials and work with the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns the convention center, to push for the convention center hotel.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl "recognizes the economic impact that the convention industry brings to Pittsburgh," said his spokeswoman, Joanna Doven. "With a convention center hotel, our ability to bring in more conventions would increase, and that translates into a stronger economy and more tax revenue." Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald wasn't available to address the matter, said his spokeswoman, Amie Downs.
Davis said the economic impact of more convention visitors over time would outweigh the cost of the hotel.
"It's brand new money from the outside, which is the best kind of money to have," Davis said.
Jeremy Boren and Mike Wereschagin are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Boren can be reached at 412-320-7935 or email@example.com. Wereschagin can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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