Too much space for too few conventions?

Colorado Springs and Vail may jump into the growing pool of conference centers. But critics doubt the facilities could compete with Denver's for revenue.

By Julie Dunn
Denver Post Staff Writer

Post file photo / Craig F. Walker
A foe of Colorado Springs’ convention-center plans says that “many people who are looking at Colorado Springs are also looking at big brother Denver” and its newly expanded facility, the auditorium of which is shown above.

Decades-long proposals to build publicly funded convention and conference centers in Colorado Springs and Vail may be nearing reality amid questions of whether the investments will pay off.

Colorado Springs residents will most likely vote this spring on a $74 million convention center and U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

In Vail, the Town Council will make a final decision early next year on whether to break ground on a $42.5 million conference center that was approved by voters in 2002.

The earliest the facilities in Vail and Colorado Springs would open is 2007.

Proponents envision economic engines that pump millions of dollars into their communities from increased tourism, overnight hotel guests and sales-tax revenues.

With the same logic, Denver spent more than $310 million to expand the Colorado Convention Center, which opened to great fanfare this month.

But convention centers are far from a sure bet. The meetings and convention industry has been shrinking for several years, according to Heywood Sanders, a public policy professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a leading critic of convention centers as revenue generators.

Attendance at the 200 major U.S. trade shows and conventions has dropped from a peak of 5.1 million in 1996 to 4.1 million in 2003, Sanders said. At the same time, the amount of exhibition space has grown from 40.4 million square feet in 1990 to 63.6 million square feet available this year.

"You've got a lot more space chasing fewer attendees," Sanders said. "I'd advise serious caution before launching such a project."

Another hurdle for Vail and Colorado Springs: their regional airports offer far fewer direct flights than Denver International Airport, a factor that meeting planners take into consideration in choosing a location.

"We're a second-tier market (in Colorado), and it's very competitive out there," said Jackie Duff, president of the Pikes Peak Lodging Association, a group of Colorado Springs hotels that oppose building a convention center because they say current meeting facilities are adequate.

"The reality is many meeting planners are looking for the nonstop air service," Duff said. "I think we would be naive if we don't recognize that many people who are looking at Colorado Springs are also looking at big brother Denver up the road."

It is possible for convention centers to thrive in smaller Colorado cities. Two Rivers Convention Center in Grand Junction opened in 1975 and underwent a renovation in 2001. It generated $1.3 million in revenue in 2003.

"You just have to have a really good plan and a really strong product," said Larry McCue, director of conference sales at Keystone Conference Center, which opened its mountain conference space in 1989. "It's all about quality of service."

Need for convention center

debated in Colorado Springs

In Colorado Springs, the proposal calls for a 155,000-square-foot convention center and a 25,000-square-foot U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. The U.S. Olympic Committee's administrative headquarters are in Colorado Springs.

The center is part of the city's larger urban renewal plan for southwest downtown.

The proposed convention center is likely to be funded by an increase in lodging and auto-rental taxes, said Tom James, a Colorado Springs attorney who is heading the coalition of convention center proponents. Voters there have long been wary of a publicly funded convention center and have turned down numerous proposals in the past three decades.

"Colorado Springs has not approved this several times in the past, so history would say that it will be a challenge," James said. "But in my own opinion, this will be the most viable proposal yet to be put forth. I'm optimistic voters will approve."

According to a 2003 feasibility study funded by taxpayer money, the center could have an economic impact on downtown of $87.1 million by 2011, create 1,200 new jobs and bring in about $2 million in annual tax revenue.

But some believe the city doesn't need the additional exhibition space. Colorado Springs is already home to two 100,000-square-foot venues - the Phil Long Expo Center and the Southern Colorado Expo Center.

"We're opposed to it because we believe that this is not going to be the bonanza to the tourism industry that has been reported," said Duff, who is also general manager of the local Embassy Suites hotel. "We already have places where people can hold conventions. We believe this one would eventually become a tax burden to the citizens."

Another factor in the Colorado Springs convention market is The Broadmoor Hotel and Resort, which is undergoing a $43 million expansion of its convention space, slated to open in October. The additional 70,000 square feet will bring the Broadmoor's total convention and meeting space to about 184,000 square feet.

"The market is so oversaturated, it's tough," said Broadmoor president Stephen Bartolin, who opposes the city's convention center proposal. "But in our case, all we're doing just adding another niche of business to our existing base."

A push in Vail to attract

conventioneers in off-season

In November 2002, Vail voters approved a 1.5 percent lodging tax increase and a half-cent sales tax increase to fund a proposed $42.5 million, 113,000-square-foot conference facility.

It will be in Lionshead Village and could host corporate and professional groups as large as 2,500 people.

If the Vail Town Council approves final design and financial plans this spring, construction could be completed by 2007.

But a controversy has erupted over the chosen "natural" design for the conference center, complete with an undulating roof, which some say looks like a mushroom.

"I believe that the brand name of Vail will give us a very strong advantage," said Stan Cope, owner of Vail property management company American Hospitality and a member of the Conference Center Oversight Committee. "We feel pretty comfortable that if we do a good job on this, the people will come."

The Vail Conference Center is part of a push by the resort and the town to attract tourists year-round.

Given the lack of room inventory and parking spaces during peak ski season, some say it is not a wise move to build a facility that can be fully viable only from March through November.

"You don't spend $42 million building something that can be used four or five months out of the year," said Diana Donovan, a Vail Town Council member who is against the conference center. "The rest of the time, the beds are just not available."

Staff writer Julie Dunn can be reached at 303-820-1592 or jdunn@denverpost.com.