State subsidy revives Downtown convention hotel plans

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Downtown Pittsburgh can finally move ahead with plans for a headquarters hotel, with 400 to 500 rooms, adjacent to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.


That's because the state Legislature this week included a $34 million subsidy for the $103 million project when it approved projects paid for from the slots development fund. The fund, based on 5 percent of taxes paid by slots casinos, also is helping to pay for a replacement for Mellon Arena.

Although hotel plans have been dormant for more than a half dozen years, the Sports & Exhibition Authority will stick with developer Forest City Enterprises, of Cleveland, said SEA Executive Director Mary Conturo. The company already owns the Westin Convention Center Pittsburgh hotel, which is the hotel across Penn Avenue from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

In a bit of irony, Forest City and partner Harrah's were turned down for a casino license at Station Square, but the firm will benefit from the slots development fund. The plan is to build a new $103 million hotel that would span 10th Street on the two empty lots between the center and Penn Avenue.

Joe McGrath, the president of VisitPittsburgh, which promotes the city for tourism and conventions, said that money should be enough to build a 400- to 500-room hotel.

"That would be a very good thing," he said.

Mr. McGrath said when convention planners choose sites other than Pittsburgh, they say the number one reason is that there is not a large enough convention center hotel.

"We've left 90,000 room-nights out there because of that," he said, referring to convention planners who have chosen to go elsewhere.

While the partial convention center collapse in February was major news in Pittsburgh, Mr. McGrath said, the city did not lose any conventions because of it. Instead, he said, it's the rooms that are key.

Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, said experts have said the convention center needs about 1,000 rooms directly attached to the building. Currently, with the bridge from the Westin Convention Center Hotel, the center is linked to 600 hotel rooms.

Ms. Conturo said the new hotel would most likely be connected to the existing hotel using the same bridge and that all of it would be operated as one hotel.

The $34 million is part of $44 million the Sports & Exhibition Authority will receive. The remainder will pay back the money it spent to clear the site for the new building and for work aspects of the convention center, such as a ballroom, built to accommodate the hotel.

She said no more money will come from the city or the county to finance the hotel. The rest of the construction cost will be paid by Forest City. Now, she said, the authority and the developer have to sit down and work out the details of the agreement for the new hotel.

The administrations of both the city and county were cheered by the approval of the money for the hotel.

"Already, our world-class convention center is competing with cities nationwide, but with a connecting hotel, we can be even more competitive and bring more money into our city," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said in a statement.

In a statement released earlier this week Mr. Onorato said the money for the hotel was part of a $500 million package that will build the hotel and the new arena, "reduce our debt for Pittsburgh International Airport and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, and to retire debt for Allegheny County's and Pittsburgh's economic development funds. This funding will create jobs, spur additional development, and reduce pressure on taxes."


Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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