PHOENIX-Lobbying undoubtedly will be heavy in the coming months now that council has OK’d a November balloting that will decide whether to spend as much as $300 million on a proposed $600-million expansion to Phoenix Civic Plaza.

The plan is to float a bond issue, using an in-place hotel room tax for payments. Meanwhile, city officials are eying the state for a $300-million balance to finance the project, which would add 170,000 sf in exhibition space, 12,000 sf to the ballroom and another 107,000 sf of meeting space.

The task now is for the city and other boosters to convince voters and state officials that the expansion is vital to the local economy and would benefit residents beyond the borders of downtown. “We can’t compete with other convention destinations based on our existing package,” says Brent DeRaad, a spokesman for the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If we don’t do anything with Phoenix Civic Plaza and don’t build any hotel rooms our convention business will not only remain stagnant but will drop.”

During the past six years, some 80 conventions representing 800,000 hotel room nights have cut Phoenix from consideration because of the limited size of the Civic Plaza, Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau officials believe. Boosters cite the recent loss of the women’s NCAA final four basketball tournament as a prime example of the types of convention business that the city’s losing because of its undersized exhibition space.

As yet, there is no organized opposition to the project. The proponents, though, will have a tough time convincing legislators from outlying areas, including Tucson, that spending $300 million in state funds will benefit them. With an expanded Civic Plaza, state tax revenues from the convention business will climb from $23. 7 million annually to more than $44 million, according to DeRaad.

Even if the state doesn’t appropriate any funding, the city plans to move forward on scaled-back expansion plans. Construction could begin in early 2002 and continue for the next three years.

Even though Phoenix is a major tourism destination and the sixth-largest city in the nation, the Phoenix Civic Plaza falls 60th in size in comparison to other convention centers. The 29-year-old building, which had been expanded in 1986, has 53,000 sf for meetings, a 28,000-sf ballroom and 221,000 sf of exhibition space.

The city wants to add a second story to the existing building, which is bounded by Jefferson and Monroe streets and Third and Fifth streets in the CBD. A horizontal expansion is out of the question due to the plaza’s positioning. Thus, vertical is the only way to go.

DeRaad says the downtown’s low number of hotel rooms also impedes convention business. A plaza expansion, he says, would spark hotel developers’ interest. There are just 1,700 hotel rooms within walking distance of Civic Plaza, a statistic that drives Phoenix to 65th place in the convention city rating. “There certainly would be a lot of development pressure for downtown hotel rooms,” he says.

The city has not been able to provide hotel developers with incentives since it lost a lawsuit to existing operator, the Crowne Plaza. An expanded Civic Plaza would bring enough convention business to downtown that Crowne Plaza’s owners might relent in allowing incentives, DeRaad says.

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