Despite local leaders' urgent desire to quickly expand the Salt Palace convention center, lawmakers hinted Friday they may wait a year to fund the project because plans do not yet contain enough detail.
State auditors released a study to the Legislature Friday questioning some of the assumptions made by expansion proponents. For instance, proponents claim Salt Lake City is losing conventions because the Salt Palace is too small. However, auditors studied why conventions rejected the city and discovered many reasons, including the lack of adequate hotel rooms and the city's image.Proponents claim the expansion will bring $539 million into the state during the first six years. Doug West, deputy auditor general, said he could not substantiate those claims because no one had collected necessary data or done detailed plans.
And, even if the claims were true, the money may not come for many more years, he said. Most conventions make reservations from three to 10 years in advance.
That prompted House Speaker Craig Moody, R-Salt Lake, to say lawmakers may not give the $15 million this year that would be the state's share of the expansion costs.
"For the Utah Legislature to buy into this at this time with such limited information is a trust-me kind of concept," Moody said. "Normally, we do the planning phase one year, then the implementation phase the next year."
Critics of the expansion say the report justifies what they've been saying all along - that conventions will not flock to the city just because the convention space is expanded.
"That's the Field of Dreams philosophy. If you build it, they will come," said David Owen, a member of Utahns For Responsible Spending and a marketing director for a trade-show exhibit company. "The problem is one of hotels, not of convention space."
Salt Lake County officials have changed the timetable for expansion since Democrats took over the county commission in January. They want to build in phases, constructing a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and 50,000 square feet of convention space, renovate existing facilities and begin a master plan this year.
They want to wait until next year to decide what to do with the Acord Arena, which no longer will be used for professional sports or concerts after Larry H. Miller completes his larger arena in the fall.
But West said the arena is a large part of the expansion and that the project should not begin until a decision is made as to what to do with it.
Higgins said three options exist. The county can turn the arena into something else, such as a science center; it can use it as a second arena in cooperation with Miller; or it can tear it down.
"It's going to take a detailed master plan to determine which option to chose," he said.
But despite the skepticism, lawmakers still seem to be squarely behind the idea of expanding the Salt Palace. The project just may not come as quickly as some had hoped.
"I want you to know I do support the project," Moody said. "But until those issues are addressed, you're going to have trouble getting the Legislature to fund a trust-me concept."