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L.A.'s Wide-Open Space

April 10, 2002

Need a room to hold a meeting? The Los Angeles Convention Center just might be able to accommodate you.

The bottom fell out of the tourism business here after last year's terrorist attacks in the East. The convention center hit especially bleak times. Now with the lights out as often as they're on, the center's 720,000 square feet of exhibit space, 64 meeting rooms and 5,600 parking spaces equal so much yawning space. In fact, the city may have to cough up $7 million in general funds to make debt payments for the center's 1993 expansion.

Dozens of conventions booked into the center have canceled in the last three years, and the big money that conventioneers would have spent at restaurants and hotels is lost, along with the tax revenue generated for city coffers. Worse still, there's only a handful of convention bookings on the horizon.

The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau is the private, nonprofit group responsible for renting the convention center and promoting regional tourism. The city pays the bureau $17 million a year. Now, with the center so often empty, local leaders are asking whether that money could be better spent.

Revival of convention business rests on a concerted public-private effort. Cities that do a big convention business have lots of hotel rooms within walking distance of their convention centers. Los Angeles has only 650 rooms, nothing compared with the 9,400 rooms Las Vegas offers or San Francisco's 5,000.

Los Angeles needs more hotels in downtown's south end. But without solid convention bookings, no hotel chain has wanted to take on such a risky venture. The City Council and Mayor James K. Hahn could solve this chicken-or-egg problem by offering tax incentives, perhaps a rebate on the city's hotel bed tax, to encourage construction.

The council has already approved a plan for new development around Staples Center, including restaurants, shops and theaters. Phoenix and Cleveland do bang-up convention business and they don't have nearly the attractions that Los Angeles has. The mayor and council should insist on performance standards and public oversight of the bureau in exchange for the millions it pays the organization to bring in conventioneers, or else yank the contract when it expires in June of 2003.

Unless the bureau and Hahn do much more to market downtown, the city's turquoise convention center may soon become a hulking white elephant.

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