Conventional wisdom: Pittsburgh leaders must get more from the center

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It cost $373 million in taxpayer money to build. It has a dramatic design and a fabulous perch above the Allegheny River. Yet the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, version 2.0, remains a Pittsburgh underachiever.

The predecessor facility opened in 1981 and was criticized for being too small and too unattractive to compete with centers in other cities. So hopes were pinned on the Rafael Vinoly-designed, 313,000-square-foot hall, which opened in 2003, to capture more convention business for Downtown.

But 10 years into its run the center that was tripled in size, with exhibit space now equal to five football fields, has seen its attendance decline or stagnate, according to a review Sunday by the Post-Gazette’s Mark Belko. This is not what Pittsburghers expected for their public investment. 

The Post-Gazette report showed that in a number of areas business was not what it should have been at David L. Lawrence. The highest number of trade shows held in the last decade was seven in 2007; last year there were only two. In 2004 the convention center hosted 272 events, but only 174 in 2012. Total attendees also declined, from a peak of 507,222 in 2004 to 458,025.

Craig Davis, CEO of VisitPittsburgh, the tourism agency that books most of the city’s conventions, says success should not be measured in attendance but in economic impact. The agency says direct spending from major events at the center rose from $89.9 million in 2004 to a peak of $169.2 million in 2009 and $118.2 million in 2012.

Even so, the hard numbers on people and events inside the building cannot be dismissed. A professor who is an authority on the convention business said the Pittsburgh center “at best, is kind of sputtering.” It doesn’t help that the facility also runs a $2.5 million annual operating deficit that has been covered by money from the state gaming economic development fund or revenue from the Regional Asset District.

This disappointing appraisal is similar to one compiled by the Post-Gazette when the convention center turned five. And, though it may be desirable to construct a large hotel next to the convention center to drum up more business, the project is not financially feasible or likely to be pursued.

There are no easy answers, but this sorry situation cannot be ignored. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto, the Sports & Exhibition Authority (which owns the center) and VisitPittsburgh must convene a summit on the state and future of the convention center. The asset is too costly and too important to be underutilized.

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center is an essential ingredient to Pittsburgh’s economic vitality, but its under-performance is unacceptable.

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