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Pinellas leaders revive talk of a convention center

With the tourism industry crumbling like a day-old sand castle, business leaders across Pinellas County are turning to an old idea for new cash flow: Build a convention center.

From Clearwater to St. Petersburg to unincorporated Pinellas, business leaders are scouting locations and buttering up government officials to secure funding for what could be Florida's 21st convention center.

"It obviously brings money and people," said architect Randy Wedding, who has discussed the idea with other downtown St. Petersburg business leaders. "The question is how soon can we do it?"

But a publicly funded convention center could be a tough sell at a time when local governments are trimming their budgets and staffs.

St. Petersburg's first deputy mayor, Tish Elston, said the city has no plans to build a convention center.

Pinellas County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart expressed doubts about the timing.

"Something like that raises an awful lot of questions," he said. "I don't see any municipalities or even the county expressing any interest in delving into something of that magnitude at this time."

A convention center would do little to ease immediate economic struggles, business leaders acknowledge, but it could create a new tourism market for the area in the long run.

"It is just a whole different segment of business," said Tim Bogott, chief executive of the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach, which markets to business groups. "Family tourism is great, but they aren't going to fill your rooms during periods when the weather isn't particularly good or when the kids go back to school."

Any specifics, however, have yet to be hammered out.

Most leaders agree the convention center should be on the smaller side so it doesn't compete with Tampa's 600,000-square-foot convention center.

Anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 square feet with an adjacent 700-room hotel should suffice, but that's an early estimate, said D.T. Minich, executive director of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"All the talk is very preliminary," he said. "There is no plan."

Competing business interests want the convention center in their community, yet all agree the county cannot support more than one venue.

The Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce recently formed a task force on a downtown convention center. The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership has eyed Tropicana Field as a potential location.

Others have cast a wider net.

Dr. Carl Kuttler, president of St. Petersburg College, has looked at locations in unincorporated Pinellas, Clearwater, downtown St. Petersburg and Tarpon Springs.

"If Pinellas is going to be a major player in the future, you need to look at convention services," he said. "There is a lot of interest."

Pinellas is the largest county in Florida without a convention center.

Local leaders have discussed the need for a large meeting place for decades, with little success. A proposed waterfront conference center was shot down by St. Petersburg voters in 1982.

A sagging tourism industry inspired this latest round of convention chatter. Hotel "bed tax" revenue fell to $1.15-million this fall, off 11.8 percent from September 2007.

A convention center, proponents predict, would not only fill area hotels, it would necessitate new hotel construction.

Orlando saw a surge in hotel growth when its convention center, the second largest in the nation, was expanded in 2003, according to Kathleen Canning, deputy general manager of the Orange County Convention Center. "It's a wonderful business," she said.

But even convention centers aren't economy proof.

"Convention centers are hinged on competing with other major cities in the country for a limited number of events," said John Moors, administrator of the Tampa Convention Center, where attendance has started to drop. "It's very tough out there right now."

Times Staff Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Pinellas leaders revive talk of a convention center 11/10/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 4:59pm]
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