The Convention Center, long considered one of the city’s most potent economic engines, is set to become a safe refuge for homeless San Diegans who experts have said are particularly vulnerable  to the coronavirus pandemic.
The announcement by Mayor Kevin Faulconer follows the cancellation or postponement of more than two dozen events that the Convention Center Corp. had estimated could deliver more than $230 million in economic impacts to the region – and that was just what the center reported through Sunday.
Last fiscal year, the Convention Center Corp. estimates that its convention-goers contributed at least $27.4 million to the city’s hotel-tax rolls, a significant share of the city’s total hotel-tax collections that make up one of its most significant funding sources.
“The Convention Center is a centerpiece of San Diego’s economy and during this pandemic, it will be a centerpiece of our fight against the coronavirus,” Faulconer said Monday. “Many events and conventions are on hold for the timing being and right now there is no higher and better use for this facility.”
The opening of the Convention Center is part of a larger plan to open up additional shelter options for homeless San Diegans, including more than 240 new shelter beds at Golden Hall in the City Hall complex. Regional leaders said Monday they will also transform the city’s four bridge shelters into triage centers where homeless people can be medically screened and linked with shelter and other services.
The announcement marks a dramatic shift for the Convention Center and a swift reshaping of the city’s homeless service system.
Advocates have long urged the city to consider large city facilities  as potential shelter options for homeless San Diegans. Now, amid a deadly pandemic, city officials are proceeding rapidly.
Convention Center Corp. CEO Rip Rippetoe said the first call about potentially housing homeless San Diegans in the Convention Center came last Wednesday. His first meeting with city officials about the possibility was on Friday.
“We’re experts in bringing people together. This is just different,” Rippetoe said. “We’re having to take everything we’ve ever learned about hosting events and apply it to taking care of our most vulnerable and continue to be good servants for their convention center.”
Now Convention Center caterers employed by Centerplate who typically serve convention-goers will be preparing boxed meals for homeless San Diegans.
Rippetoe said he also expects building engineers, cleaning teams and setup crews well trained on how to assemble complex conventions to prepare for a new community.
“The really nice part about this in terms of us helping is that we can be this sort of one-stop solution versus having to mobilize a lot of different contractors,” Rippetoe said. “What we’re really good at is building small cities every week to serve the community.”
Faulconer couldn’t immediately say how soon the Convention Center could open to homeless San Diegans.
Faulconer and Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, emphasized the volume of homeless San Diegans the Convention Center is equipped to serve.
When it first opens, Kohler said, the Convention Center will take in homeless San Diegans who are currently in shelters. Then it will open to others.
“Everyone who is unsheltered should have an opportunity to come in and receive services – simple things like charging their phones, meals, showers, bathrooms. This is being built to scale with not only the incredible support of the Convention Center but also our providers and our behavioral health and our health care experts so that it is set up very intentionally to meet not only their needs of shelter but also of socialness and inclusion,” Kohler said. “It is standing up a city, really, within the Convention Senter.”
The Convention Center’s sheer size – 2.6 million square feet  – means it can accommodate homeless San Diegans’ pets and personal items, plus be arranged so certain populations can be served in a particular wing and so refugees from city shelters and camps who have long relied on one another can remain together through the health crisis.
“It’s going to make a significant difference,” Kohler said.