Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — This week's USANA International Convention and the most recent visit of the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market rekindled the debate over whether downtown Salt Lake City should build a large hotel adjacent to the Salt Palace Convention Center.
The USANA event brought in an estimated 8,500 attendees and is expected to generate nearly $7.5 million in total visitor spending to Salt Lake and the state of Utah. The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the state's largest annual convention, attracted 1,200 vendors, nearly 27,000 attendees and generated almost $25 million in visitor spending.
Total visitor spending figures are based on surveys of convention delegates conducted by the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Surveys conducted by the research group over the past five years indicate the average delegate spends $923 while attending a convention in Salt Lake.
Supporters say a 1,000-room “headquarter hotel” would put Utah’s capital city on equal footing with other similarly sized metros such as Denver, Nashville, Phoenix or San Antonio. However, critics argue that building a major new property should only occur if the project is undertaken by private investors with no public or government involvement.
“The concern is that there would be too much government help and public subsidization to make that new hotel work,” said Clint Ensign, senior vice president, government relations for the Sinclair Companies — which owns and operates the Grand America and Little America Hotels. “Public subsidy required for a 1,000-room hotel could range from $80 million to $120 million.”
Ensign said that the total estimated cost for such a project would be in the $300 million range. He said providing such significant financial support for a convention center hotel would be unfair to other hoteliers that built and upgraded their properties with no public funding.
He said subsidization could take various forms including property tax abatements, bonding or tax increment financing. Either way, such assistance would give the new property an unfair advantage.
“A $300 million convention center hotel would require a room rate of around $300 a night to make that project (financially viable),” Ensign said. The hotel would have to charge a room rate of $200 or less to be competitive in the market, he added.
“It’s that public subsidization that (would) make up the difference,” Ensign said. “If that subsidization is far more than what has been done for existing hotels, you create a tremendous competitive inequity downtown.”
The Salt Palace underwent a massive overhaul in the early 1990s, resulting in a facility that now houses more than 675,000 square feet of convention and meeting space — a 46 percent increase in total space. Supporters of a “headquarter hotel” claim that despite the major remodel, the building still lacks the proximity and ease of use to guest accommodations that many convention planners seek.
A 2008 study by Piper Jaffrey Hospitality Group stated that the Salt Palace ranked fourth out of 11 competitors in square footage of exhibit space. But among comparable competitors, the Salt Palace was the only center that did not offer a headquarters hotel.
From 1997 to 2008, 16 hotels with 700-plus rooms opened in the U.S. in non-gaming or non-resort areas. Only three were privately financed without public subsidies — two in New York City, along with the Grand America in Salt Lake City. All of the hotels financed after 2002 were completed with tax-exempt bonds and/or public subsidies, the study noted.
Preliminary forecasting from the Piper Jaffrey study for a four-star convention-oriented hotel estimated a total development cost of $325 million. The report estimated a 73 percent occupancy rate two years after hotel opening with a room rate charge of approximately $176 per night, less then that predicted by Ensign.
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