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Beef Week: The Long Fight for Convention Center Control

The government agency that runs San Diego’s Convention Center and the private group that markets the city as a tourist destination have been locked in a years-long struggle over who handles certain responsibilities. Attempts to expand the Convention Center only made things worse.

Chances are you haven’t given much thought to the relationship between the government agency that runs San Diego’s Convention Center and the private group that markets the city as a tourist destination.

One group operates a building dedicated to visitors; the other tries to bring visitors to town. You’re forgiven for thinking they’d be complementary players in the city’s tourism effort.

Beef Week-01Here’s the thing: They don’t get along. At all.

They’re engaged in a years-long struggle over who handles certain responsibilities. Attempts to expand the Convention Center only made things worse.

The Tourism Authority is a private nonprofit group run by tourism-related entities that markets San Diego as a destination mostly through the roughly $25 million it collects each year on a tax it charges hotel guests.

The San Diego Convention Center Corporation is a city-owned nonprofit that runs the day-to-day operations of the Convention Center.

In 2004, the Tourism Authority, then called ConVis, was in charge of booking conventions at the Convention Center. Then a city audit called out the group’s leadership for what the U-T editorial board called “boozy schmoozy” trips to woo convention planners.

The city decided to turn over booking responsibilities to the SDCCC.

For a few years, things were settled. Convention Center business increased and SDCCC exceeded its sales goals each year it was in charge.

Tourism Authority CEO Joe Terzi, back when the city was trying to figure out how to expand its Convention Center, said he was really happy with SDCCC’s work.

“They’re doing a good job and we believe it should stay where it’s at,” Terzi told Liam Dillon.

A few months later, things changed.

In the spring of 2012 the city was running headlong into a plan to pay for a Convention Center expansion mostly with a new hotel tax approved by hotel owners, not city residents. A court would later deem that arrangement unconstitutional.

But before hotel owners agreed to vote for the financing plan, they wanted to take back control of Convention Center booking.

The City Council was asked to give Convention Center booking back to the Tourism Authority and the hoteliers.

Suddenly Terzi didn’t think SDCCC was doing a good job.

“But frankly if you look at the booking patterns and what the center has been able to achieve, the booking patterns have been stagnating over the last number of years,” he told the Council.

Councilman David Alvarez asked Steve Cushman, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ point man on the expansion, if hotel owners had requested the change in exchange for voting for the expansion. Cushman said the hotel industry just wanted greater say over the direction of SDCCC.

“I take the answer to that question to be ‘yes,’ then,” Alvarez said. He was the only Council member to vote against the change, and the Tourism Authority has handled Convention Center bookings ever since, even though the expansion is in limbo.

Giving booking authority to the private Tourism Authority is good for hotel owner profits, as Dillon explained back in 2012:

Private control over Convention Center’s booking will allow (the Tourism Authority) to direct smaller events to hotels, instead of the center. Hotels would reap those profits.

More business at hotels means more tax dollars into city coffers, the hoteliers contend. In essence, hoteliers argue what’s good for the hotel industry is good for the city.

Clarification: A previous version of this story stated the Tourism Authority was run primarily by hotel owners. Twelve of its 29 board members represent lodging businesses, which is a plurality but not a majority.

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