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ORLANDO-Orange County comptroller Martha Haynie is weighing the cost-effectiveness of auditing the construction progress of a $750-million, 972,000-sf expansion at the Orange County Convention Center. An audit could take a year to complete. She is expected to make a decision in 30 days. The expansion is due to be completed by May 2003.

The issue arose after critics alleged the four-year project is being mismanaged. They claim numerous unauthorized change orders in the construction schedule have already triggered $8 million in overruns from the project’s $30 million contingency fund.

Convention center officials and managers deny the charges and say, through representatives, they welcome an audit or investigation of any kind into the costs to date.

Tom Ackert, a career county official and executive director of the center, couldn’t be reached at GlobeSt.com’s publication deadline. But associates who are working closely with him tell GlobeSt.com on condition of anonymity that Ackert is “as clean as a whistle.”

They acknowledge the estimated $535-per-sf hard construction cost on the $520-million exhibit hall-only portion of the expansion may be among the steepest in the industry, but maintain the expensive addition s necessary to produce a world-class product that can compete with Las Vegas, its No. 1 rival in the convention-booking business.

“We’re not putting up a shack,” associates of Ackert tell GlobeSt.com. “We’re erecting a showcase to the world.”

That showcase reference is what is bothering some local watchdog groups. They point to the 918,000 sf Vegas is currently adding to its 2.28 million-sf exhibit hall at a hard construction cost of $150 million or $163 per sf.

Vegas, however, could be the exception in the cost-per-sf category, convention center defenders argue. Based on published accounts in the various cities, GlobeSt.com finds Dallas is adding 200,000 sf for $100 million at $500 per sf; Atlanta, 425,000 sf at $230 million ($541 per sf); and San Diego, 276,000 sf at $216 million ($783 per sf).

In new center construction, Washington, DC is building a 725,000 sf exhibition hall for $756 million or $1,042 per sf while Boston’s 600,000 new center will cost $700 million or $1,167 per sf.

Critics of the Orlando center also contend the total $750 million budgeted figure for the 972,000-sf addition actually equates to $772 per sf. The expansion will give the center a total two million sf of exhibition space.

Vegas will have 3.2 million sf after its addition is completed. On top of that, two other Vegas locations will bring the grand total of exhibition space there to five million sf.

The Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino is planning a three-story, one million-sf convention center. The existing Sands Expo and Convention Center has another million sf of exhibit area.

The design-build project in Orlando is being erected and managed by three nationally-known general contractors–Hubert, Hunt and Nichols Inc. of Indianapolis, IN; Clark Construction Group Inc. of Bethesda, MD and Construct Two Group of Orlando.

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