Comic-Con’s growing pains have helped fuel downtown boosters’ years-long push for a Convention Center expansion.

Yet Comic-Con’s been able to stay in San Diego and expand its footprint without one, by holding events in downtown hotels and other venues rather than relying solely on the Convention Center for space.

Before the mid-2000s, Comic-Con organizers say, the Convention Center handled their needs. But by 2006, the Convention Center was struggling to handle Comic-Con crowds. That year, Comic-Con had to turn some attendees away and the following year, Comic-Con tickets sold out.

As you can see, Comic-Con’s current footprint is a far cry from its onetime singular digs at the San Diego Convention Center:


 Map by Tristan Loper

The event’s still notorious for its crowds and Comic-Con has opted to continue capping attendance, in part because the extra Convention Center space it’d been counting on hasn’t materialized.

But sprinkling events around downtown has made it possible for Comic-Con to stay in San Diego, Comic-Con spokesman David Glanzer said.

Indeed, the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Marriott Marquis and Marina, Manchester Grand Hyatt and Omni hotels all provide space for Comic-Con events these days – and do so free of charge, per agreements set to remain on the books through 2018.

“The hotels are very important to us,” Glanzer said.

The Horton Grand Theatre and the Central Library are also hosting screenings and panels this year. Comic-Con’s using open spaces in the area, too.

Those additional venues, plus new hotel room block deals with more than 50 local hotels, helped San Diego leaders persuade Comic-Con to commit to San Diego through 2018.

But Comic-Con isn’t making promises post-2018.

Comic-Con organizers want an expansion and they’ve got a clear preference on what that should look like. They’d like to see a contiguous expansion — more space that’s connected to the current facility.

“We have always said that contiguous space is ideal for our event,” Glanzer said.

Glanzer didn’t elaborate on Comic-Con’s specific needs but Convention Center Corp. spokesman Steven Johnson said the group’s demands are straightforward: Organizers want more ballrooms, exhibit hall space and meeting rooms, and they’d prefer them to be attached to the current facility.

That seemed likely until last year, when legal issues threw a wrench into plans to expand the waterfront Convention Center. Downtown boosters are now awaiting a study that will address whether groups like Comic-Con would be open to an expansion located a few blocks away. The likely Plan B location is a half-mile away in East Village.

Glanzer declined to say whether Comic-Con would bail on San Diego if the city pursues the non-contiguous expansion.

But local leaders who regularly engage with Comic-Con – and who are themselves advocating for a contiguous expansion – say Comic-Con hasn’t wavered in its desire for a contiguous expansion and that the current campus-like atmosphere is only a temporary solution.

Having events spread across downtown makes the massive event more complicated to organize, said Tourism Authority chief Joe Terzi, who’s participated in negotiations with Comic-Con.

“Ideally, if they could put all that stuff in one building, that would make life so much easier,” Terzi said. “That is not what they live with right now.”

City Councilman Todd Gloria, whose district includes the Convention Center, acknowledged he’s enjoyed seeing the spectacle of Comic-Con spread throughout the Gaslamp District but said Comic-Con and other big conventions have made it clear an expansion attached to the current Convention Center is ideal.

“It’s one thing to have one night of Comic-Con at the library,” Gloria said. “It’s another thing to have a sustained exhibition several blocks from the main event.”

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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