Convention center safety concerns cancel auto show

Inspections of slab's collapse will keep facility closed into next week

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The 2007 Pittsburgh International Auto Show, scheduled to begin Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, was canceled last night after it was announced that safety inspections would keep the facility closed until at least early next week.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Ironworkers get ready to hook up and lift the fallen beam at the convention center yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.
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The independent reviews were ordered by city and Allegheny County officials after a 20-foot-by-60-foot section of concrete flooring in a second-floor loading dock collapsed Monday afternoon.

"We are saddened that the auto show will not be able to take place at this time," Denise Brennan, Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association executive vice president/CEO, said in a statement last night.

"Safety is, of course, our primary concern. Unfortunately, building officials needed more time to assess the situation, and we just ran out of time."

Ms. Brennan said her group would continue to work with convention center officials in the hope of rescheduling the nine-day show sometime in the spring.

The other show most affected by the convention center closing is a conference for Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing, a forum that brings together retailers and manufacturers of health and beauty products.

Mary Conturo, executive director of the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, said the authority has business interruption insurance in the event a show cannot be staged.

The auto show's cancellation quickly followed the announcement by the SEA, which owns the convention center, that it had hired Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. of Cleveland to perform an independent physical inspection of the building.

Another firm, Leslie E. Robertson Associates, of New York, also will review the work of the convention center's architect and builders, who are trying to determine what caused the floor collapse during the first stages of the auto show's arrival.

A 48-foot tractor-trailer delivering equipment for the auto show apparently triggered the collapse about 2 p.m. Monday, which sent concrete, a steel beam and a high-lift vehicle plummeting onto a walkway and water feature 30 feet below. No one was injured in the incident, but the truck, which was precariously suspended across the hole in the floor, could not be secured until yesterday.

While investigators look for a cause, an initial focus appears to be on an expansion joint in the area of the collapse.

State Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, an SEA board member, said preliminary indications are that an expansion joint in the building could be at issue.

Ron Graziano, chief of the city's Bureau of Building Inspection, said he has been told that investigators also are "looking at connections along the expansion joint."

Expansion joints open or close as structures respond to changes in temperature. While that is one area officials are examining, they have not arrived at any conclusions, Mr. Logan said.

He said officials also believe, preliminarily, that whatever triggered the collapse is isolated to that section of the building, although he cautioned that they won't know for sure until a full review has been completed.

The area of the collapse, which includes a section of 10th Street between French Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard, remains closed. The convention center, which was evacuated for more than two hours after the incident, was reopened later Monday, but has been closed to the public since Tuesday.

The cancellation of the auto show came hours after a morning meeting of a dozen representatives of the Downtown hotel community and VisitPittsburgh, the group that promotes the city and books conferences for the convention center. The session, held in the Regional Enterprise Tower, Downtown, was used to discuss what to do if the convention center remains closed.

"It was very serious, but at the same time very productive," said Bob Imperata, executive vice president of VisitPittsburgh. "It shows what a good team we have in the hospitality community. Everyone is working together.

"We're trying to sort out who has some space available and, if we need to, we can start to make some alternate arrangements for groups to be accommodated in other venues."

Some of those venues being discussed included Heinz Field, Heinz Hall, Mellon Arena, the Benedum Center and the Petersen Events Center at the University of Pittsburgh. The Downtown hotels also are scrambling to make ballroom space available.

"We're not sitting back and waiting," said Joe Kane, general manager of the Westin Convention Center, which stands to lose 500 room-bookings with the cancellation of the auto show.

"The future business that's coming in is quite heavy over the next three and a half months," said Mr. Kane, who expressed hope that the convention center will be declared safe after the inspections. "We have a lot of conventions booked. We hope we can get them in there."

Mr. Kane said the hotel operators met with VisitPittsburgh to exchange ideas for alternatives. Cancelling shows, he said, is not the solution.

"The hotel community is not going to accept that because we have too much money riding on them," he said. "We're not going to just sit here and let our business go away. There's too much at stake here."

Mr. Kane said the Westin has 35,000 rooms booked for conventions over the next 31/2 months.

"That's probably about $7 million in business," he said. "And we're one hotel. Extrapolate that to the whole city. And then the taxi drivers, the food purveyors, the restaurants in the neighborhood, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's. They all are affected because these people spend money."

The other show most affected by the convention center closing is a conference for Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing, a forum that brings together retailers and manufacturers of health and beauty products.

The group was conducting business in the convention center Monday when the floor collapse occurred. Its people were evacuated, then told they could return. Tuesday, however, their functions were restricted to the Westin, where they were staying, because the convention center was closed.

As much as the Westin tried to accommodate ECRM, Charlie Bowlus, the company's CEO and founder, said the show suffered.

"We have guys fly in from all over the world to this show to do business, and they ended up talking to each other, but they didn't have access to their displays and their products," he said.

Asked if there were financial repercussions, he said, "You can bet on it. That's how these people do business."

He declined further comment on the advice of the company's lawyer.

Auto show officials had hoped to salvage at least a portion of their event, which draws 50,000 to 100,000 people every year. Earlier yesterday, show spokeswoman DeeDee Taft said, "It would be a big loss for us, clearly, but if we can salvage five days from this, it's better than no days at all."

Ms. Taft declined to discuss the costs her group incurs to hold the annual show but said there are several hundred employees whose jobs are connected with it. Officials said about 40,000 programs already have been printed for the show.

While the dealer association does not release revenue or attendance figures for the show, Ms. Brennan did say that the impact of postponing "will be huge on us as an association. We use this event as a springboard to the spring selling season for the Pittsburgh market. This is our primary event each year. Financially ... the dealers would miss a chance to show cars and get potential sales."

Ms. Brennan said anyone who purchased an advance ticket to the auto show could receive a refund by visiting the group's Web site at pittautoshow.com.


Staff writer Don Hammonds contributed to this report. Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 4122-63-1456. Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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