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Convention Center is Key to the Next-Gen Economy

Back Commentary May 10, 2019 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

In January, portions of the Sacramento Convention Center came tumbling down, the first phase of a remodel and expansion after two years of planning for a larger and more efficient facility. The Panattoni Building at 15th and K streets that houses the administration offices surrendered to the wrecking ball to make room for what will be a new entrance to a bigger and better convention center.

The convention center remodel is just one piece of a complex, three-part rebuilding of the eastern end of the city’s cultural nerve center. Known as the C3 Project, it also includes revamping Memorial Auditorium and remodeling the Community Center Theater. When construction is completed in about two years, the complex will provide more expansive and modern facilities for theater and arts groups and a more comfortable and enjoyable experience for patrons.

The convention center expansion will add about 40,000 square feet of exhibit space and another 40,000-square-foot ballroom to accommodate larger groups and conventions, in addition to creating a more efficient floor plan.

Since its construction in 1974 and a remodel in 1996, the Sacramento Convention Center has been a reliable workhorse, drawing upward of 175,000 conventioneers a year and hosting a smorgasbord of events that range from concerts and speakers to trade association meetings, all of which support a tourism industry with an estimated economic impact of $2 billion annually.

Much of that revenue, of course, flows into restaurants, retail businesses and hotels as visitors enjoy the attractions and amenities Sacramento has to offer. And that’s a valuable contribution to the economic health of the region, an important role for any convention center.

For the most part, however, it’s a short-term economic benefit, recycled each time bookings turn over from one group of conventioneers to another.  To be sure, supporting the tourism industry is important and that value should not be underestimated.

But a revitalized convention center also presents Sacramento with an opportunity to create more long-term benefits by playing a strategic role in the region’s economic development. In addition to its ability to draw larger groups in the highly competitive convention business, the expanded convention center can be a vital weapon in the city’s efforts to attract high-quality jobs in growing, innovative industries.

Convention centers in many cities already are filling that role, recruiting groups and events with strategic value aligned with the region’s goals. Las Vegas, for example, strategically attracted conventions for tech and computer groups, such as the IBM World of Watson, that brought together leaders from across that industry to share ideas with local officials. That effort ultimately created a thriving local industry focused on developing autonomous, self-driving cars. San Diego has followed suit with the life sciences industry. Cleveland has followed the same strategy, using its convention center as a focal point for the medical industry.

Eighty-four percent of executives surveyed by Skift, which researches the meeting industry, said it was important or critical for a convention center to define a region as a hub of innovation or a showcase for developing industries, in addition to supporting the local tourism industry.  

When the Sacramento Convention Center reopens, it will bring people to the city. More important, it should bring new ideas and new investment opportunities to develop a stronger regional economy.

The Sacramento economy is growing beyond its traditional government base. Our streets are becoming a testbed for autonomous, self-driving cars and cleaner alternative fuels. The city is one of the nation’s first to embrace new generation 5G broadband. Healthcare and agricultural research are growing segments of the economy. The list of strategic economic targets is getting longer.

By becoming a place where industry leaders can exchange ideas with local companies and policy makers, the new Sacramento Convention Center can do more than fill hotel rooms with visitors. It can be a strategic weapon to fill out an expanding next-generation economy.