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DETROIT CONVENTION CENTER: New or redo? Proposal coming soon

December 20, 2003



The most talked-about concept at next month's North American International Auto Show may not be a vehicle, but Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's idea for a new convention center in Detroit.

Kilpatrick is to announce his plan for a new or expanded Cobo Center during a speech to the Economic Club of Detroit on Jan. 9 as part of the auto show festivities.

The main options are to add a floor or build a new center in or near downtown. In the latter event, Cobo could be demolished or reused.

Whatever the mayor proposes, it's safe to say a replacement or updating of Cobo will cost $1 billion or more and generate significant controversy. A trial balloon floated this week for a sales tax increase set off a storm of comment before being disavowed by Kilpatrick and others.

Clearly, a new or expanded convention center would be one of the biggest and hardest-to- finance new public works in years.

But not trying it isn't much of an option either. Detroit's Cobo, opened in 1960 and expanded in the 1980s, offers 700,000 square feet of exhibit space. At least 17 other convention centers in the United States and Ontario offer more space.

Detroit is losing ground fast to cities that are building new facilities, including Chicago, where the 2.2-million-square-foot McCormick Place, the nation's biggest, is in line for a 600,000-square-foot addition by 2007.

Cobo grows less efficient with age. Newer centers offer stronger load-bearing floors and ceilings, and easier entry and exit for exhibitors. Organizers of Cobo's premier event, the annual auto show, have cautioned that a failure to add room threatens the success of the show and even its future in Detroit.

"We've told people that we need more space. The manufacturers are all over us" to get more space for exhibits, William Demmer, chairman emeritus of the auto show, said Friday. "We've got to consider all possibilities. There's too much of an economic impact on all of southeast Michigan for us not to do it."

If Detroit intends to snare new convention business -- which puts customers into hotels and restaurants, and showcases the city to national and international leaders -- it will need to keep pace with competing cities, planners say.

"Detroit has already invested in various public facilities, such as stadiums. Now it's time to do the convention center," said Matthew Summy, vice president of CH Johnson Consulting, a leading convention center planner based in Chicago that has worked with Detroit officials for two years on a Cobo upgrade or replacement.

"Convention centers are not quite as sexy but they are certainly a more powerful economic engine," he said.

To get Detroit's exhibit space up to a hoped-for 1 million square feet at a minimum, Kilpatrick and other local leaders have two options.

One is to double-deck. Adding a floor on top would produce roughly another 600,000 square feet, minus some space lost to extra elevators and escalators. Combined with Cobo's current 700,000 square feet of exhibit space, it would put Detroit squarely into the top 10 cities for convention venue size.

Double-decked centers are not unusual. New York City's Javits Center, landlocked in crowded Manhattan, offers exhibit space on three levels. San Diego and San Francisco are among cities with double-deck convention centers.

"You see two-tiered facilities in highly urbanized cities with a lack of room," Summy said. "Buildings that are developed from scratch tend to be single story. Buildings that are refitted often go vertical."

Kilpatrick's second option is to build a new million-square-foot center on a new site in or near downtown. That would require about 60 acres.

New single-story centers are generally preferred over two-tier structures. They're cheaper to build. Also, moving exhibits in and out is much easier than in two-tiered facilities.

But the drawback to an all-new center is that Kilpatrick would have to find those 60 acres of available land. That looks like a big problem, given the delays and soaring costs involved in other recent attempts to buy land in Detroit -- such as Mayor Dennis Archer's failed effort to control riverfront land for casinos.

A third option -- expanding Cobo by demolishing Joe Louis Arena, Cobo Arena and other nearby structures -- has been discarded. Complications loom too large, among them finding a new home for the Red Wings if Joe Louis were to be demolished, and the amount of space gained comes up too small, said Bill Connellan, executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council, a part of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"It's either up or out -- vertical expansion or a new building," he said this week.

"If we build new, the existing goes away. Now whether it's reused for some other purpose or demolished, that's down the road," Connellan said.

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER at 313-222-5173 or [email protected].

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Officials deny plan for raising sales tax

Financing for a larger Cobo or a new one looks difficult

December 20, 2003



Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said Friday that a sales tax to pay for expanding Cobo Center is not being considered.

But the firestorm that erupted over Friday's Detroit News article about such a plan indicates how difficult it will be to get regional consensus on paying for an expansion that many say is necessary.

The two men, in separate news conferences held an hour apart, said the News' assertion that the city was pushing for a regional 1-cent sales tax to fund a proposed $1.3-billion expansion of the convention hall was off the mark.

"There are a lot of missing pieces," the mayor said Friday of the article. "What I read in the paper had so much misinformation that it couldn't be true."

"A sales tax has never even been put on the table. . . . It wasn't one of the options," Kilpatrick said. He said he is waiting for a report on the options from the regional Tourism Action Group, charged with finding a workable expansion plan.

This fall, a task force of Detroit-area convention boosters issued a report calling for either a new or completely rebuilt Cobo at a cost of $1.3 billion.

Ideas for a major expansion have been bandied about for a decade as Detroit has increasingly lost convention business to cities with growing facilities. The city's top convention -- theannual North American International Auto Show -- has said it needs more room.

The next auto show runs Jan. 9-19 and Kilpatrick is expected to make his case for expanding Cobo in the welcoming speech.

However a Cobo expansion is to be paid for, Kilpatrick may have a difficult time forming a coalition to finance it. The area's counties and the state face their own budget problems.

Patterson also objected to the Detroit News report, saying: "There certainly must have been some confusion about what I said."

The News stands by its story, said editor and publisher Mark Silverman. "I believe our story was an accurate portrayal of the information and I believe we characterized the story correctly."

Patterson said he's unwilling to help in a new-Cobo effort unless the City of Detroit agrees to his 11-point so-called manifesto. It is essentially a list of demands for greater suburban control of major projects that need regional financing.

Among other things, Patterson wants the city to end its practice of giving preference in awarding contracts to city-based firms over suburban firms.

Patterson said this week he has met a few times with Walt Watkins, Kilpatrick's chief development officer, to talk about a new convention center. But those discussions are in a very, very preliminary stage, Patterson said.

"The mayor's certainly at liberty to disclose his intentions to build this facility, but he's in no position to say anything about the funding part because that has yet to be resolved," he said.

To sweeten the deal for suburban leaders, a plan for a new Cobo could include a new, smaller center in the suburbs.

But how to pay for it all remains the toughest challenge.

"And that's not going to be an easy equation to solve," said Bill Connellan, executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council, a part of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Patterson said Oakland County already provides major tax support to Cobo Center, but gets little in return. That's why he said he must drive a hard bargain before Oakland residents are asked to chip in more in taxes.

"Ask any of our hoteliers. Cobo Hall doesn't fill them up," Patterson said Friday. "The only business our hotels and motels get from Cobo is twice a year," from the auto show and the Society of Automotive Engineers convention.

He said he was tired of only the tri-county area being asked repeatedly to support Cobo Center because a much larger region benefits, including Ann Arbor.

Peter Lund, vice chairman of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, said there is no reason why other counties should pay for any project in Detroit, including Cobo Center.

"Whenever I hear regional cooperation I grab my wallet," said Lund, a Republican from Shelby Township. "We want to be good neighbors, but that doesn't mean you pay for your neighbor's things."

Lund said Macomb is in a different situation than Oakland. He said fewer hotels and restaurants benefit from events at Cobo and therefore the county has minimal interest in paying for an expansion.

"If Detroit wants to expand Cobo they should go for it, but leave us out of it," Lund said.

Opened in 1960 and expanded in 1989, Cobo Center has about 700,000 square feet of exhibit space. Officials on the convention task force have said that if Cobo had 1 million square feet, the city could bid on another 40 major shows and conventions each year.

But many conventions also shun Cobo because it lacks sufficient meeting and ballroom space, is inefficient because of its old design, and has high labor rates and costly work rules, according to a convention bureau report.

Among several financing methods, the task force suggested a 1-percent tax on restaurant food and beverage tabs in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Oakland County officials say that before any such tax is enacted in their county, voters would make the decision.

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano supports expanding Cobo, but needs more specifics before he will back any regional funding package, said his spokeswoman, Sharon Banks.

Ficano has been involved in several discussions with regional leaders, she said, and wants to explore ways to seek state and federal funding.

"The executive is interested in the most efficient and effective approach," Banks said.

Wayne County Commissioner Robert Blackwell also agreed that a Cobo Hall expansion is a must. He said he would actively lobby for a tax increase to foot the bill.

"Raising taxes is never an easy sell, but it's something we need to do," he said.

Blackwell said suburban residents should view a new or improved Cobo Center as an expansion of culture and money.

"It's important for the region because we won't have to drive to New York or Chicago for some of those big shows," he said. "The suburbs will also benefit immensely, more so than Detroit, because they have all the hotels and fine restaurants."

Contact ERIK LORDS at 313-222-6678 or [email protected]. Contact BILL LAITNER at 248-351-3297 or [email protected] writers Dan Shine, John Gallagher, Suzette Hackney and Chris Christoff contributed to this report.

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The only large convention we ever have is the Auto Show. The convention center basically sits empty 40% of the time. So really the need for space is for the Auto Show & nothing else. I support the new convention center. Cobo is so old and outdated. Unfortunately most of the suburbanites are sick & tired of having their tax dollars go to the city. The sentiment felt by most suburbanites is that Detroit is a lost cause that will never rebound. As far as they're concerned, they're sick of seeing their tax dollars wasted by the incompetent city leaders. The sad part about the whole thing though, is that most of the people who say that have probably never set foot in the city itself. After all, it's so scary & crime ridden :rolleyes:.

I had a map showing the proposals and their locations.....what did I do with it? I'll post it when I find it.

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