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Cobo replacement a tough sell

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Cobo replacement a tough sell

Panel weighs high cost of building new against other needs

By Robert Ankeny

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's dream of a shiny new $1.3 billion convention center may be bumping against some harsh realities.

Some members of the Cobo Tourism Action Group, appointed to study convention center options, are saying the committee is finding it difficult to reconcile the cost of a new center with other urgent community needs.

"It's good to dream big and have vision, but the practicalities are that with the current economy and other regional priorities, revenue streams are not available for everything," said Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who is represented on the committee.

He pointed to ongoing discussions about regional health and transportation needs. "There is no way to get the region to raise taxes necessary for a new convention center right now," he said.

Ficano, who believes a successful convention-center project has to be a public-private partnership, said corporate leaders he's spoken to recently don't express enthusiasm about funding a new center.

Larry Alexander, president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the committee is trying for a recommendation by the end of this month.

"I'm not leaning one way or the other," Alexander said. "We're trying to get answers to every conceivable question for the public, government groups and other constituencies."

Alexander said that getting necessary data could put off a final recommendation into summer.

Committee Chairman Walter Watkins, Kilpatrick's development czar, said it is too early to discuss the progress being made toward a recommendation.

Also represented on the committee are the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, sponsors of the North American International Auto Show and Cobo Center's biggest client.

Richard Genthe, DADA president and co-chair of the 2005 auto show, said he still favors a Cobo replacement, unless costs are shown to be substantially greater than for renovation and expansion.

"Because of the adverse impact that doing the remodeling to Cobo might have on the show for two, maybe three years, I've got to lean toward building new, unless it would be something like $600 million compared to $1.2 billion," he said. "A financial balancing act has to be done."

Genthe said the committee is allowing some general contractors to put together "some hard numbers on the options, not just the estimates that we've heard so far."

Genthe said the auto show requires every bit of the 700,000 square feet and 88 meeting rooms now at Cobo, and that the space "needs to be kept available during the show."

In Oakland County, Gerald Poisson, assistant county executive, said informal public surveys show little support for financing a Cobo expansion or new convention center. "The perception out there is that it is not the right time."

Still, Poisson said, County Executive L. Brooks Patterson wants to see data for both and would support a regional approach if there is a good business case to be made for it.

Robert Ankeny: (313) 446-0404, [email protected]

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