'Unconventional Austin' gathering signatures to force vote on Convention Center expansion

The Austin Convention Center is a central location for SXSW and the big Rooster Teeth Convention that happened over the weekend, and Scott Joslove, president and CEO of the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, says expanding it is vital.

"Right now we're turning away over 50% of the business that wants to come to Austin,” Joslove said. “We have to turn away because of lack of availability, lack of space, that means we have a facility that's basically obsolete.”

Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo says an expansion will make the area more walkable and vibrant and vastly improve the connectivity to Waller Creek.

"It was important to direct the City Manager to explore that option where it would expand to the west which enables the whole eastern portion to be demolished and reconstructed but also some of that space that's currently just big blocky 'convention center' to be a public plaza," Tovo said.   

Political action committee "Unconventional Austin" is fighting the expansion. Bill Bunch says the Convention Center's business is flat to declining, so there's just no case for it.

"The Convention Center lost a reported $43 million one-year annual operating loss last year," Bunch said. "That's an enormous amount of money and that number's been getting bigger."

Joslove says the user fees don’t cover the costs of the center’s operations, but they were never intended to.

" They were always intended, when you build a Convention Center, you levy a 'hotel tax' that will pay for it,” Joslove said. “So the public has no cost for the Convention Center.” 

Tovo says the expansion would be funded through hotel occupancy taxes, not Austin taxpayers and that $1.2 billion cost is just an estimate.

Bunch says it will likely be more.

"Safely we're talking about $2 billion and up," Bunch said.  

Unconventional Austin is collecting petition signatures for the public to get a chance to weigh in.

"If you do a major expansion, we get to vote on it just like we did in '98 and the original Convention Center in '89,"  Bunch said. 

That's not all the petition asks for.

"The Convention Center be limited to no more than a third of that tourism, hotel tax revenue and the other two-thirds would go to cultural, heritage and environmental tourism related projects," Bunch said.

Joslove says the group is misguided.

"Basically Austin can spend money on Convention Centers, registration of Convention delegates, advertising and they can spend it on promotion of the arts and historical," Joslove said. “They're already capped on the arts and they're already capped on historical.”

Mayor Steve Adler is particularly excited that a Convention Center expansion is the only way to form a Tourism Public Improvement District to get funding for Austin's homeless issues.