Financial projections show the planned expansion of the Austin Convention Center would inject an additional $306 million per year into the local economy, but only if one condition holds: that large events are again held in-person after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.
A study that a consulting firm presented Tuesday to the City Council was conducted last fall — several months before the disease reached Austin and put an extended pause on gatherings throughout the world.
Tom Hazinski, managing director of HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment, the firm that conducted the study, expressed confidence that people will again have an appetite for large-scale conventions after the pandemic. However, he did caution that financial setbacks caused by the pandemic could prevent typical convention attendees from making out-of-town trips.
“Face to face importance won’t change,” he said.
The study follows the City Council’s May 2019 vote to approve a $1.2 billion plan to expand the convention center. The first phase calls for expanding the convention center to the west before demolishing and rebuilding within its existing footprint. It’s expected to be completed by 2033.
Other than the concerns tied to the pandemic, the consultant report paints a promising picture of the expansion’s potential economic impact.
The report projects that the convention center’s annual impact would grow from its current estimated $494.9 million to about $801.7 million with the expansion, an increase of $306.8 million. There also would be a 61% increase in jobs created, from 2,868 to 4,640, according to the study. The Austin Convention Center, currently the third-smallest venue among the 16 comparable metro areas included in the study, could be the second-largest among those markets upon completion of the expansion in 2033.
HVS says its findings are based on the assumption that the coronavirus will be under control by 2024, when the first phase of the convention center’s renovation is scheduled to be done. That’s based in part on projections from medical experts that a vaccine will be available early next year.
Council Member Kathie Tovo cautioned about making financial predictions in a post-pandemic world, saying, “It’s a little hard to predict going forward.” She pressed Hazinski for reports that signal conventions will return to an in-person format after the pandemic. Hazinski said he’s basing his belief on the minimal impact past pandemics have had on convention attendance.
Tuesday’s presentation did not require any action from the council. However, the council is scheduled Thursday to vote on several items related to the expansion. Those include authorizing amendments to two contracts, for legal services and technical advice, and approving a new contract for real estate consulting services.
Another item relates to the acquisition of the land desired for the expansion.
The consulting firm’s report also showed 83% of respondents to its surveys indicated that they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to use an expanded Austin Convention Center. More than one-fifth of event planners believe that expanding the convention center is the most important improvement to make in Austin, according to the study.