SAN DIEGO — As this city's mammoth, $160-million convention center approaches completion, two big questions persist: Will the center be finished on time and will it generate the economic benefits its boosters have promised?
The convention center is scheduled for completion Oct. 31, but the 11-acre project has been plagued by delays and false starts throughout its history. The latest of these prompted the operators to admit last month that shows scheduled from November through January may have to be canceled.
Will the convention center and its 760,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space deliver the endlessly hyped benefits to the local economy? The San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, is predicting that convention center-goers will add $218 million to local visitor spending in 1990, the first full year of operation.
The benefits will have to be dramatic to offset the fact that the center will cause increased traffic, a greater shortage of downtown parking and a more congested Lindbergh Field, San Diego's already overburdened airport. Such are the inevitable consequences of the center's attracting up to 14,000 additional weekly visitors to San Diego's downtown area. In addition, a proposal to name the center after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has created sharp controversy.
Images of Sails
What seems fairly certain, however, is that San Diegans will have a truly landmark building, a massive 11-acre structure with flying concrete buttresses and a vinyl, tent-like roof meant to evoke images of sails scudding over San Diego Bay.
Also assured, judging from the comments of several exhibition managers and planners, are excellent prospects for the convention center's long-term success. San Diego's good year-around climate, tourist spots and the building's attractive bayside location make San Diego a "can't miss" meeting spot, several said.
"San Diego's going to draw a lot of business," said Edward Greeley, president of the National Assn. of Exposition Managers, a 2,700-member association of consumer and trade show organizers, planners and promoters based in New York. "I think it will be one of the most desirable sites on the West Coast."
Neil Grossman, vice president of Boston-based Cahners Exposition Group, a firm that organizes 25 large consumer and trade shows each year, including the San Diego Auto Show now held in Golden Hall here, said the new center will enable him to triple the size of his 1990 show to include 750 autos.
Heavy Airport Traffic
"We're all excited about the new convention center," Grossman said. "San Diego has a lot of pluses."
Greeley struck a discordant note when he said that San Diego's airport may prove inadequate for the added visitor traffic. San Jose, whose competing convention center is due to open this spring, received a boost last year when American Airlines announced it was establishing a regional hub there, he said.
The San Diego convention center has been controversial from its beginning. Turned down by voters in 1981, the project was approved at the polls in 1983 after the site was moved from the city's center to the harbor side and after the San Diego port district agreed to foot the entire construction cost. (The city is liable for any operating shortfall.)
Originally targeted for completion in 1987, the project was delayed a year when construction bids came in over what the port district was prepared to spend, prompting a new request for bids. Further delays have pushed the opening back at least another five months.
Getting the center open on time is of paramount concern to San Diego Convention Center Corp., the nonprofit operator, because the building is already booked in late 1989 and for most of 1990. In fact, first-year bookings so far of more than 30 conventions and consumer shows are running at twice the rate the operators anticipated.
Opening on Time
If the center opens late, the city's credibility and "several careers" will be damaged, said center marketing director Carroll Armstrong, who came to San Diego from a similar job at New Orleans' convention center. The center's general manager, Tom Liegler, ran Anaheim's convention center for 23 years before taking the San Diego job.
"It's important (that the center open on time) because people are buying you, your word and what you are saying you are going to deliver," Armstrong said. "When the destination doesn't deliver, you have to come from behind to convince them that, yes, this time we are going to be ready."
While the San Diego convention center's management has its hands full with current concerns, they are already looking forward to an expansion after the first year or two of operation. The expansion plan is partly defensive: When the convention center opens, it will briefly be the largest meeting hall in California, but will soon after be eclipsed by expansions at the Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Francisco convention centers, Armstrong said.
The expansion would occur on an adjacent 12-acre site to the south that the San Diego port district owns. The land would enable the port to double the meeting hall's size.
Such an expansion, Armstrong said, would enable San Diego to join an elite group of meeting halls classified as "world congress centers" capable of hosting groups of 20,000 or more.