Friday, Aug. 14, 2009 | Few people have a longer institutional memory about San Diego’s Convention Center than Convention Center Corp. President and CEO Carol Wallace. She came to San Diego in 1991, 18 months after the convention center opened, and she guided the center through a previous, $216 million-expansion that opened in 2001.

For the last eight months, The Mayor’s Citizen Task Force On The San Diego Convention Center Project has looked at expanding the Convention Center again, increasing exhibition space by almost 40 percent or 200,000 square feet. At $917 million for the expansion, including a proposal to build a hotel, it would be the city’s costliest construction project to date.

At the task force’s last meeting, it approved a draft report that favors expansion. The task force is scheduled to vote on the final report at its meeting on Aug. 31.

In this week’s chat, Wallace discussed the project’s importance, cost and how the city could foot the bill.

There are three infrastructure projects that the city is talking about. This, the Civic Center and the central library. Make a case for the Convention Center as being the top priority out of those three.

We are a revenue-generating project. I support the library and have since the day they talked about building a new library. I support a new Civic Center. I think those would be great, iconic pieces for San Diego.

An expansion of the Convention Center could help generate funds to build those projects because we are a revenue-generating entity. If you look at over the years what we contribute annually to the city, that gives them some of the revenues to do some of the projects they want to do. If you’re going to invest in something, I would say invest in something that generates revenue to the city of San Diego and the region.

The big question is how is the city going to pay for this?

Everyone will need to contribute. This is a big project. It has big economic impact and the only way we’re going to get it is if everybody contributes. I don’t think there’s anybody who can say, “Take my name off the list.” That’s my opinion.

Even though you have the Port saying we have no money, the city saying we have no money, [Center City Development Corp.], the whole alphabet soup. Every list I think we stand back and look at and ask the question, look at what the center has meant to San Diego as a destination, look at what it has meant in terms of tax benefits, revenue benefits to all the entities that benefit. Look at what it has meant to downtown development that [CCDC] oversees and then say if you want to maintain that, this is the next step. You look at what phase one did and the numbers are out there. You look at what phase two did and the numbers are out there. You look at what we’re talking about for phase three. If you want to continue that growth, then we as a community need to invest in the expansion. If we don’t, it won’t happen. You can’t have anybody say take my name off the list, I don’t want to play.

Do you expect any general fund revenue to go toward the expansion?

We do not expect any general fund revenue to go toward the expansion, however there are new revenues that are available from the project from the city. If you build a hotel that’s part of the project, new TOT could be available for the project. There could be new revenues that could be available, but not any existing general fund revenues, no.

Can you definitively rule that out at this point, any existing general fund revenue going toward the expansion?

I think we can. We’re all talking about new revenues. Across the board we’re all talking about new revenues.

Make a case for the overwhelming need for this project to occur and how it will pay off for the city.

I have to refer to all my numbers here. First thing you talk about the market we’ve already built. That’s a key element. We’ve already built a market and the city and port have invested $500 million to build the original convention center. We’ve already built a market that is a growing market and continues to grow. We have a number of conventions who will say that without an expansion to the convention center, ‘I can’t stay in San Diego. I want to be in San Diego. We’ve been here every four years, every three years since you opened, but unless there’s some growth in the future I need to leave.’

The highest most recognized is the comic convention. Everyone talks about Comic Con, which is 120,000 people. However, there are numerous conventions and we can give you this document that shows architects, pet products, bio tech industry, golf course superintendents, Society of Neuroscience, orthopedic surgeons, Health Information Management Systems Society. There’s a laundry list of conventions, who have been here every three or four years, who are saying, ‘I can’t come back unless San Diego expands.’

We just ran numbers on what we’re holding on our books as a tentative and already projected [hotel-room tax] and it’s $15 million for those. You look at economic impact: $889 million for just 10 conventions one time. These are people who’ve been here every three years. You have an existing market you’ve already invested and built in that’s going away unless you expand in San Diego.

Is there anything else that you think would be good for me to know or that you want to emphasize?

It’s a big project. It has big impacts to San Diego. I think if you think about the future of San Diego and where you want it to be, I go back to the port in the 1980s, the city in the 1980s when they looked at San Diego as a destination and said, ‘What we do we want to be and what do we want to invest in?’ The port and the city invested in the convention center and downtown and look at what that has generated for us today as residents, as San Diegans and also for visitors who benefit from that.

I think we’re at a point in time where San Diego needs to stop and take stock about where we want to be in the next 20 years and where we want to invest in. There are a lot of things we need to invest in, whether it’s the library, the Convention Center, new Civic Center, look at water, all sorts of things are on our mayor’s plate to look at. I think that as San Diegans I think we should support his efforts in looking at those and his leadership in moving those downfield.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the economic impact of 10 conventions at once as $889 billion, when it should have been $889 million. We regret the error.

— Interview by LIAM DILLON

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