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PHILADELPHIA-The Pennsylvania Convention Center has long been an economic driver for Center City Philadelphia, drawing more than one million visitors a year to the area. Now that the convention center is being expanded, its economic impact on the city could be huge.

The possibilities were discussed by a panel hosted by the Central Philadelphia Development Corp. The speakers included Jack Ferguson, EVP of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau; Thomas Muldoon, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau; Joseph Coradino, EVP of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust; Edward Lewis, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and CPCD executive director Paul Levy.

Once the expansion is complete, the convention center will boast the largest contiguous exhibit space in the northeast, at 541,000 sf as well as the largest convention center ballroom on the east coast, at 60,000 sf. Total exhibit hall space will be raised from its current 440,000 sf to 700,000 sf. The $700 million project is scheduled for completion in 2010.

With so many more people coming to the convention center, hotel growth in the area is set to boom. “This will stimulate hotel growth, because we have to have it,” Ferguson tells GlobeSt.com. “We see somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,200 to 2,500 new hotel rooms coming to Center City Philadelphia, particularly focused near the convention center.” According to Ferguson, 533 rooms are currently being converted from former office space in the area and are expected to open in 2009, just ahead of the convention center’s reopening. In addition, a 55,000-sf site at the corner of Broad and Race Streets is being considered for an 800- to 900-room hotel.

“The critical component of that particular site is that it is linked underground by an existing subway pedestrian walkway, which isn’t being used,” reports Ferguson. “So, the hotel could be linked underground directly to the convention center.”

Extra visitors will want to eat, shop and see the sights, and the area is gearing up to service them. According to Ferguson, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which is housed right across the street from the convention center, plans to spend $15 million converting part of Cherry St. into a pedestrian walkway. The walkway will extend from Broad St. to the PAFA buildings right at the door of the convention center.”What this does is, it links PAFA and the convention center with the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which is where most of our major museums are. So, now you have the cultural aspect of the arts tied into PAFA and tied directly into the Broad Street entrance of the convention center,” says Ferguson.

Nearby retail, particularly the Gallery at Market East, is due to receive some renovations ahead of the convention center opening. The 30-year-old Gallery was built in the style of a suburban mall, with shops facing inward and a blank wall along Market Street. The improvements include adding glass facades to the outside of the building and bringing in new anchor tenants that can serve visitors, area residents and commuters.

“The improvements to the Gallery will induce other improvements on Market St. East,” says Ferguson. “There’s really nowhere else for upscale retail to go but over to Chestnut and Market streets, which link up to the historic districts of the city.”

Ferguson and the other panelists have high hopes for the city after the convention center expands. “The convention center is going to grow by about 62%,” says Ferguson, “so you’re going to have something in the neighborhood of 1.6 million or 1.7 million people going through that building a year. All of a sudden, you’re going to have activity along North Broad Street that never existed before. Right now, there’s not much activity on North Broad. Once the center opens, you’re going to have happen on North Broad what happened on South Broad, which is the Avenue of the Arts now, with all of the theaters.

“Over the years, the convention center has been the economic hospitality engine that drives all segments of the market because it exposes people to Philadelphia,” he concludes. “They come in, they see it, they like it, they see there’s activity. That also creates a lot of activity for the area residents and the region. It’s stimulated all segments, not just convention center business.”

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