A new Jazz arena appears to be on the way, but expanded downtown convention facilities will have to wait. Meanwhile staggering, yet hidden losses to the local economy will continue to mount, say local boosters.
Salt Lake City has missed out on $33.8 million worth of convention business since 1986 because facilities - exhibit halls, meeting rooms and ballrooms - are too cramped to draw national gatherings or even to keep conventions that have booked here from canceling reservations, according to the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau.When officials set up a task force last summer to study the feasibility of a new downtown Jazz arena, they pointed to recent convention cancellations by the American Chemical Society and the Water Pollution Control Federation and also asked for a study of convention facilities.
While the Jazz arena is undoubtedly the sexier issue in the public eye, it's the task force report on needed convention facilities - and the potential $40 million price tag to remodel and expand - that is more critical to many local government leaders.
Conventions and trade shows put an estimated $85 million into the local economy last year. But just those two canceled meetings alone would have brought another $7.5 million worth of hotel bookings, restaurant meals and retail purchases by out-of-town conventioneers, all new dollars flowing into the economy with sales and room taxes going directly into government coffers.
"The general condition of the Salt Palace (convention facilities) leaves something to be desired," read the cancellation letter sent by the American Chemical Society to the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Questions to be addressed by the task force were simple - what downtown convention facilities does the Salt Lake area need that it doesn't now have to draw and keep big conventions, where can it put these facilities, what will it all cost, and how can it be paid for?
According to the task force report, and another by a private consultant, Salt Lake needs a ballroom big enough to seat a banquet of 3,000; 100,000 additional square feet of exhibit space, bringing the total to 300,000; and 20 new meeting rooms that can accommodate at least 100 persons each.
Recommended location: The Salt Palace - utilizing remodeled arena space after the Utah Jazz and other tenants have moved to a new building.
Cost: An estimated $25 million. But that's not all.
A additional $16 million upgrade is needed for existing convention facilities, pronto. Or else face the consequences of continuing to lose big gatherings to Denver, Phoenix, San Antonio and other competing cities now in the midst of expanding their own convention facilities, the reports say.
Salt Lake County, which operates the convention facilities at the Salt Palace, will probably be expected to foot the bill for remodeling and expansion. But the county is hoping for up to $20 million in state help with the costs, possibly through a capture of projected new sales taxes generated by improved facilities. Those sales taxes could be used to pay off bonds issued to cover the cost of construction.
County officials had hoped to approach lawmakers about convention funding during the just concluded legislative session. But legislators would only consider one new downtown Salt Lake project this session - the Jazz arena - and told county officials not to link their convention proposal to the arena deal.
So optimistic county commissioners say they'll work on feasibility proposals over the next 12 months and approach lawmakers for convention funding next year.