New Convention Center Concerns: Location, Price Tag, and More Considered in Proposal

Bill Rice- Ed Rybka, who chairs the Cleveland City Council's Public Properties Committee, has doubts about Mayor White's plan for expanding the current convention facility in downtown Cleveland. Chief among his concerns are the expense-$460 million to rebuild the existing center, and another $100 million for an adjacent hotel to accommodate convention-goers. Rybka says Clevelanders, and all of Cuyahoga County, are still smarting from the costs-and cost-overruns-of other recent big ticket projects.

Ed Rybka- The football stadium, a city project, went well over budget, the Gateway project went way over budget. The convention center is a city building and if there's a decision to embark on that kind of a project we want to be certain it's going to be done within budget in a cost-effective way.

BR- Beyond the cost factor, Rybka also questions the physical layout of the White proposal. It calls for a hotel on the block that's now home to the public plaza known as Mall B and the county administration building, and parking located to the north. That means, Rybka says, much of the added convention and exhibition space would be underground, hidden from public view.

ER- Should we spend three or four hundred million dollars and not have an architectural statement that is of civic pride to Clevelanders as well as a statement to those that are coming to this region.

BR- Rybka and city council are more receptive to an alternative plan designed by local architect John Van Domelin. One of that plan's chief backers is Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.

Jimmy Dimora- Van Domelin's plan utilizes the lakefront, and gives development to the lakefront. Just west of the Browns Stadium there's a 28-acre parcel of land that could be used for the convention center and a hotel. I though it would be more cost effective.

BR- Dimora says the alternative site would not only be cheaper, but would also provide room for expansion that wouldn't be possible on the smaller site.

The county would bear much of the cost and responsibility for the convention center project, just as it has with the Gateway Project. Dimora says he favors not only the alternative plan, but alternative funding as well. Rather than pay for the convention center by increasing the tax restaurant meals by 2%, as the White plan proposes, Dimora would rather divert money from an existing hotel sales tax that in Cuyahoga County generates some $300 million a year. In theory, he says, the convention center would draw more business to Cleveland hotels, and the revenue from that would in turn replace the original diverted funds.

JD- To me it seems very common sense, better than talking about a tax increase. With the tax increase naturally then people that really don't use the convention center, anywhere they live in the county would be asked to be paying for it when they visit a restaurant.

BR- Those backing the mayor's proposal say they haven't seen the alternative plan and thus can't really give an informed appraisal. Dave Nolan of the Cleveland Convention and Visitors' Bureau, served on the White administration's convention center task force.

Dave Nolan- We would be all for looking at something that is less expensive and still is very functional, but the fact is as we speak today the committee has never seen specific numbers, it's only been talked about for general purposes to the best of our knowledge.

BR- Conversely, Nolan says, the plan his task force recommends has been well researched and has several advantages. Among them-its central location, right in the heart of the city, providing easy access to other downtown attractions. And, he says, it fits in well with the mayor's overall plan for lakefront development.

While there are broad differences in these competing convention center proposals, there is general agreement that a state-of-the-art convention center is a logical "next step" in Cleveland's development. Dave Nolan says the city has a very real edge in becoming a successful convention spot. It has destination appeal.

Dave Nolan- We are no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of this country, getting no respect. We have respect. We've paid the price, made the capital investments from building the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, keeping the Browns in town, great neighborhood development with wonderful restaurants from Tremont to the Warehouse district. We're losing more business than we're booking, but it's not because the target audience doesn't want our product, we just don't have the facilities. That's what we're trying to fix.

BR- But the debate over a final plan and how to finance it could be a long and contentious one. Mayor White's office has not answered requests to comment on how convention center plans might proceed, or whether the administration is open to further discussion. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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