County considers a smaller convention center in West Shore

WEST SHORE — The West Shore business district is sprinkled with millions of square feet of office space, two malls, an airport, a restaurant row to whet any appetite and more than 8,000 hotel rooms.

But you'll have to meander about 4 miles east on Kennedy Boulevard to downtown, where there are fewer than 5,000 rooms, to find the city's main conference spot, the Tampa Convention Center.

Now business and tourism officials want to see whether the West Shore area could support a conference center of its own, albeit a smaller one.

The Hillsborough County Tourist Development Council and Tampa Bay & Company, the county's convention and tourism bureau, have tapped Pricewaterhouse Coopers to conduct a feasibility study. Officials meet Wednesday to determine the scope of the $25,000 study and a timetable for the results.

The Westshore Alliance, a business membership group like a chamber of commerce, spearheaded the effort to get the study started.

Some believe that the convention center downtown is so large that it scares smaller groups from coming to Tampa. For instance, Ron Rotella, the alliance's executive director, said he had heard about a group of dentists who went to Orlando where convention space was more suitable to their needs.

"Intuitively we feel there is a need. But you need more than intuition. You need the financial analysis," Rotella said.

But Tampa already has a convention center. The 600,000-square-foot waterfront facility features a 200,000-square-foot exhibition hall, a 36,000-square-foot ballroom, 36 expandable rooms and 84,000 square feet of public space.

John Moors, the convention center's administrator, said he didn't know details regarding the study and didn't want to comment on it directly.

As for his facility, Moors said, business is good given the economic climate. He also said the convention center can accommodate any size group from 50 to 15,000 people. Rates range from $200 to several thousand.

"We have one convention center in town and it's this one," Moors said.

Jim Bartholomay, general manager of the Renaissance Tampa at International Plaza and a Tourist Development Council board member, said the proposed West Shore facility would not be meant as competition.

"The interest is not to steal business from downtown. It is to enhance each other and coexist," Bartholomay said.

Even with a sluggish economy, Bartholomay believes the timing to conduct the study is right.

"Once things start to improve, you are going to start to see everything fill up again," Bartholomay said. "West Shore has the ability, it is a dynamic location."

Steve Hayes, executive vice president of Tampa Bay & Company, said there are no expectations about what the study will conclude.

"A lot of people are assuming this is a full-blown study. This is really just the first phase to determine if the viability is there," Hayes said. "This is going to get us some answers to questions like, 'Is this even worth moving forward?' "

Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or jleone@sptimes.com.

County considers a smaller convention center in West Shore 02/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2009 3:30am]

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