Austin Is Aiming to Add Nearly 500,000 Square Feet of Meeting Space

Author: David McMillin       

Everything’s bigger in Texas, but one building in the state capital may be getting even larger. A group of convention-industry advocates have formed a steering committee called A New Vision for Austin’s Convention Center, and if the vision comes to life, it could mean 447,000 additional square feet of meetings, ballroom, and convention space. Julie Chase, vice president and chief marketing officer for the Austin CVB, told PCMA via email that the expanded space is essential for the city to secure convention business. While Austin attracts the interest of plenty of convention organizers, Chase said that it currently turns away half of its potential business due to size or availability.

“We know an expansion is vital to our city’s economic development and to stay a heavily desired meetings and convention destination,” Chase said. “We want the expanded convention center to be a communal hub that locals love and meeting attendees want to visit. While it is too early to finalize any design elements, we hope to see numerous shops and restaurants on the street level, a possible outdoor park on the roof, and a stage for local musicians to play, among others.”

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Keeping Up With the Competition

It’s a constant battle for destinations to stay at the top of site-selection lists, and the call for an expansion comes at a time when Austin’s competitive set is making big strides. Nashville’s Music City Center opened in 2013, and San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center recently completed a $325-million expansion. In Denver, voters approved a proposal to add up to 80,000 additional square feet of meeting and ballroom space, 100,000 square feet of prefunction and service space, and an outdoor terrace on the roof of the existing center. The Austin Convention Center’s most-recent expansion occurred in 2002. While the center’s available space has remained the same, the nearby hotel supply has been steadily increasing. With a new 1,066-room Fairmont opening this summer, there will be even more places for attendees and exhibitors to stay within walking distance of the center.

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The Potential Stumbling Block in the Texas Senate

While more space could continue to elevate Austin’s status in the business events industry, the CVB and convention center are staring down a troubling bill in the Texas Senate that could cause significant reputation damage — not just for Austin, but for the entire state of Texas. Lawmakers in the state are currently debating SB6, which shares many similarities with North Carolina’s HB2 bill. Chase told PCMA that 25 organizations — representing an estimated economic loss of more than $120 million if they moved their events out of Texas — have proactively reached out to express concerns over the discriminatory nature of SB6.

“We are working closely with our CVB partners and several state associations to make sure that SB 6, HB2899, and other discriminatory bills that could potentially have a negative impact on our state, city and industry, are not passed during this legislative session,” Chase told PCMA. “Be assured, the tourism industry and many high tech and other businesses in the city and throughout the state are strongly against passing this type of legislation.”

As the leaders of the Texas tourism industry work to fend off SB6, the steering committee is stepping up its efforts to educate the public on the benefits of an expansion. Mary Guerrero-McDonald and Girard Kinney, two members of the steering committee, outlined the fundamental reasons that voters should approve an expansion plan in a letter to the Austin American-Statesman. “Convention center expansion serves as an economic engine for all of Austin and will serve as a catalyst to reinvigorate the entire eastern part of downtown,” the two wrote. “Now is the time to expand our convention center in a smart and careful way.”