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Convention Center expansion plans mired in controversy

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Funding the $520 million expansion of the San Diego Convention Center has been much debated, with different factions boosting different ideas.

That additional space is necessary and that the expansion will help keep signature events like Comic-Con in town is something most people agree on.

It's how to get the money for it, who gets to sit on the board and where power will shift that has everyone up in arms.

The expansion would comprise a new hotel with 500 rooms; meeting, exhibition and support space; and a water transportation center. Architectural firm Fentress was commissioned to come up with the new plans.

Since 1989, when it opened its doors for business with 1.7 million square feet of space, the Convention Center has brought in revenues for the city and area businesses.

In 2001, it acquired an additional 1 million square feet of space, with help from the Port of San Diego, which owns the center and leases it to the city.

The Convention Center has made San Diego one of the top three medical conference destinations in the United States, a lucrative line of business given the size and scale of such events.

In 2008, a task force found that increasing the space available from 2.7 million square feet to 3.7 million square feet made sense, given the competition from bigger convention centers in Las Vegas and Los Angeles for larger events.

Comic-Con, which has signed a contract to stay in town until 2015 despite other cities trying to lure it away, has made the expansion a condition to continue to come to San Diego.

Outgoing Mayor Jerry Sanders came up with a plan to avoid a public vote and finance most of the expansion tab with room surcharges for hotels with 30 or more rooms. After some political wrangling, area hotels and motels agreed to the surcharge provided they get a couple of seats on the Convention Center's board.

Additional financing of $3.5 million a year would come from the city's annual operational expenses, and the Port will make a $3 million contribution for the first 20 years.

But the surcharge revenue from the hotels comes at a price — not just the board seats but also the increased role that the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, or ConVis, will have in the Convention Center.

Many hoteliers are part of the privately run ConVis. And the City Council transferred a lucrative booking contract from the public Convention Center board to ConVis, allowing it to book many of the events and set the price.

Labor unions opposed this move, arguing that the board seats and the booking power would give hotels more say in how things are run at the Convention Center and threaten union jobs in catering, janitorial and other areas.

While the hoteliers voted to approve the surcharge, it's still under judicial scrutiny to ensure it is legal to impose it.

Earlier this summer, the Port made public a draft of the environmental impact report for the expansion, which points to numerous impacts that will have to be taken care of before the expansion can move ahead.

The report highlights impacts in air quality, traffic and noise pollution during construction that will need to be dealt with, and the report still awaits approval from the California Coastal Commission.

Some of the environmental concerns include emissions from construction material, which will need to be mitigated with low volatile organic compounds, and pollution from diesel trucks making on-site deliveries, which could be reduced by using late-model trucks with better emission rates and by reducing idling time.

When the Port opened the report up for public comments, among the notable ones it received were from the Padres, the city of Coronado and the San Diego County Archeological Society.

The Padres are objecting to, among other things, the loss of parking space. While the expansion will create more demand for parking, it will also eliminate nearly 300 parking spots downtown.

Once the issues are resolved and the California Coastal Commission approves the plans, the Convention Center can move ahead with the expansion, expected to be completed by 2017.

-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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