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Mayor says it's Time for new Convention Center


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TOM WALSH: Mayor says it's time to replace Cobo

Bigger center envisioned, but where is uncertain


People leave the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center on Thursday. Auto show organizers have been vocal the last few years about getting more convention space so the show can continue to compete as one of the best in the world.

January 9, 2004



Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick wants to build a huge new convention center -- and possibly a large adjacent hotel -- in Detroit to replace the aging Cobo Center.

In a speech today to the Economic Club of Detroit, Kilpatrick will say he is focusing on the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver as a possible model for financing the Detroit project, which likely will cost more than $1 billion.

Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb visited Detroit last week to discuss how the Denver deals were done. Kilpatrick and a team of key aides will visit Denver a month from now for an in-depth examination of the ongoing project, Kilpatrick said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Kilpatrick has a site of 60 to 65 acres in mind for the new convention center, which he said needs about 1.2 million square feet on one level, compared to just 700,000 square feet at Cobo now. But he won't reveal his preferred site in today's speech, for fear speculators will drive up the cost of acquiring land.

"All I'll say is that it's somewhere between the Detroit River and Grand Boulevard," he said, laughing.

Kilpatrick said he'd like to return from Denver, finalize a plan, get state and regional buy-in on how to pay for it and start construction by fall of 2005.

Organizers of the North American International Auto Show, Cobo's biggest annual event, have been agitating for several years to expand Cobo or build a new, larger facility so Detroit can continue to compete as one of the world's top auto shows. Frankfurt, Germany, Tokyo and Paris all have convention centers of 1 million square feet or more. Venues in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, all of which are larger than Cobo, would love to supplant Detroit as the premier show in the western hemisphere. That puts at risk the $550 million in annual economic benefit that comes to Detroit each January from 6,500 visiting journalists and other auto industry officials.

Kilpatrick conceded there is nothing resembling a plan yet for financing a new or expanded convention center. And though he has talked with Gov. Jennifer Granholm and suburban leaders during the 15 months a task force has been exploring the Cobo issue, Kilpatrick wants Detroit to come up with a plan on its own.

"Detroit needs to go to Denver and come back and say directly to Brooks" Patterson, the Oakland County executive "or directly to the governor, 'This is exactly what we need from you; can you do it or not?' . . . Detroit needs to be very definitive, very specific in what we are asking people to do."

He said he would also approach corporate chief executive officers and businesses that benefit directly from convention business to help finance a new facility.

"When I come back from Denver, I'm going to want to sit with major corporations, because there's going to have to be some political and human capital spent on this," he said. "We also have to engage the Republican-led Legislature in Lansing. There's no way we can get this done without the state saying this is important to the economic engine of Michigan."

Kilpatrick said the convention center task force, headed by Detroit's chief development officer Walt Watkins, decided against expanding the current Cobo Center for two reasons:

Functionality. After visiting the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany last fall, it was clear the world's major auto companies preferred one-floor exhibition halls. The only way to do a major expansion of landlocked Cobo would be to add an extra floor of space. "Big conventions prefer a horizontal rather than a vertical arrangement," Kilpatrick said.

Second, a major expansion and renovation of Cobo, built in 1960 and last expanded in 1989, would cost just as much as building a new convention center.

The mayor said no decision has been made about what to do with Cobo if and when a new convention center is built. The city will be paying off a bond issue used to finance the 1989 Cobo expansion until 2014.

The hotel question

Kilpatrick also said he's not sure whether a new hotel should be part of a new convention complex, although he's clearly intrigued by the 1,100-room Hyatt being erected in Denver alongside the expanded convention center.

He said Webb told him Denver had hotel companies from around the nation compete to run the flagship hotel, and that Hyatt gave the city about $8 million to help cover pre-construction infrastructure costs. That's one of several financing approaches in Denver that have piqued Kilpatrick's interest.

"We're going to sit with Wellington Webb, and some of the lawyers and finance people in Denver, and we're going to have a big meeting on how they actually put that together," he said.

Matthew Summy, a planning expert with Chicago-based CH Johnson Consulting Inc., who is consulting with Detroit on the convention center issue, said Denver first built a convention center in the 1970s and added to it in the '80s. It now has demolished the original part and is adding a whole new $300-million section, scheduled for completion later this year.

The final product will offer about 600,000 square feet of exhibit space. Tax-exempt financing and hotel taxes were used to help pay for it.

On the need for a new center in Detroit, Summy said, "It's a big price tag, but it's the appropriate evolution for your market and the missing ingredient downtown."

When Cobo was expanded in 1989, it was the nation's third largest convention center. Now it's barely in the top 20 and sinking lower each year -- and losing convention bookings as a result.

Elsewhere, Phoenix is spending $600 million to triple the size of the Phoenix Civic Center to 940,000 square feet by 2009. And like Denver, it's building a new convention hotel to accompany the expansion.

Another new hotel in or near downtown Detroit would likely be controversial because Detroit's existing hotels are far from full most of the time, and three new casino-hotels of 400 rooms each are planned in the next several years.

Speculation about possible sites for a new convention center has been rampant in recent months, leading to Kilpatrick's long-promised speech on the subject today.

One debate has revolved around the question of whether convention space should sit alongside the Detroit River or be moved inland, leaving the riverfront for linked parks and entertainment. If a riverfront site is chosen, the area west of Joe Louis Arena and Riverfront Apartments, but east of the Ambassador Bridge, would appear to offer the most space. A Detroit Newspapers printing plant, slated for closure at the end of 2005, and a CSX rail yard are there now.

Other speculation has involved land between Woodward and Cass avenues north of the Fox Theatre. Even the old Tiger Stadium site has been discussed.

"It's not where a lot of people think," Kilpatrick of his preferred spot. "That's why I don't want to even hint at it."

Granholm, asked about her preference for a new or expanded center when she toured the auto show Tuesday, summed up the challenges this way:

"Whichever way is financeable. We need more space. We want to make sure the auto show stays here. . . .

"But it's all about money," she said, rubbing her fingers together. "That's the intractable difficulty."

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or [email protected] Staff writer John Gallagher contributed to this report.

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They have to build it or the Auto Show will leave the Motor City. And the auto show is the one annual event in the city that draws visitors from all over the world to downtown Detroit. I'd hate to see the auto show move to another city.

As far as the design goes, it would be cool to do something with the history of Detroit theme. Although funding is the major issue. Getting people to back this is not going to be easy.

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Ok now that I look at it and from what I read A LONG TIME AGO. I kinda have a plan. Is there anyway they could tie Tiger Staduim into a new convention center I know i may sound stupid (this is why I shouldn't be a city planner or mayor) but the people what to redevelope it why not tie it into a new converntion center.

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Ok now that I look at it and from what I read A LONG TIME AGO. I kinda have a plan. Is there anyway they could tie Tiger Staduim into a new convention center I know i may sound stupid (this is why I shouldn't be a city planner or mayor) but the people what to redevelope it why not tie it into a new converntion center.

site is not large enough

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