To stay competitive with peer cities, the 21-year-old Charlotte Convention Center needs a $100 million renovation over the next six years, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority said Monday.
Under the proposal, the convention center’s footprint would not expand onto new property, at least not in the short term. But the center’s meeting space would grow by about 34,000 square feet, mostly by rebuilding the center’s facade facing Stonewall Street.
The CRVA also said it wants to better connect the center to the rest of uptown, with a pedestrian bridge from the center to the Whole Foods grocery and residential development under construction on Stonewall Street.
If City Council members approve the renovations, the city and CRVA would use the hotel/motel tax and a 1 percent tax on restaurant bar tabs. That money is mostly restricted for Bank of America Stadium.
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The renovations would help Charlotte’s convention center stay competitive with other cities, such as Nashville, which recently opened the Music City Center, said CRVA chief executive Tom Murray.
But what’s challenging for mid-sized cities like Charlotte is that the overall meeting industry is not growing significantly. And as other cities build new centers, the competition to land conventions and meetings is intense.
The Charlotte Convention Center never has met its original projections for booking meetings, even after the 2010 expansion that built a new ballroom and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The CRVA’s presentation Monday did not offer details on whether the renovation would grow business. In response to a question from council member Al Austin, Murray said the CRVA’s consultant, Jones Lang LaSalle, estimated the renovations could help the city land three to five new “citywide” conventions, which usually require multiple hotel rooms.
The convention center today is focused on large exhibit space. Those are the large, unfinished rooms in the center’s lower floor, with 30-foot ceilings.
Only 18 percent of the Charlotte center is for smaller meeting space. Murray said newer convention centers have as much as half of their space dedicated for meeting space.
“Our market has changed,” Murray said. “It’s less exhibit focused. It’s more meeting focused. In the past (meeting planners) wanted four white walls and keep everyone out. Now they want an authentic feeling about Charlotte.”
▪ The center’s side facing Stonewall Street today is an uninviting concrete facade. The renovation plan would create a new glass front, which would also create 26,000 new square feet of small meeting space. Murray said it would become a “second front door.”
▪ The pedestrian bridge over Stonewall Street would be adjacent to the light-rail tracks. It would allow guests to enter the Westin hotel without crossing the street.
▪ The center’s side facing Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard would also be changed. The CRVA would create a terrace that could be open to the elements in nice weather by opening partitions or closed during the summer or winter.
The convention center today has about 330,000 square feet of exhibit space and meeting space. The renovations would add about 30,000 square feet of new space.
This round of renovations would not expand the footprint of the center. But Murray said the CRVA will continue studying an expansion, possibly on city-owned land on Caldwell Street across from the NASCAR hall.
Murray said increasing the amount of meeting space will make it easier to land new conventions.
But he said the CRVA still has another challenge: getting hotels to offer discounted room blocks for conventions.
Because the Charlotte economy has been booming, uptown hotels have found they can make more money on regular business travelers. That has created a conundrum for the CRVA, whose mission is to put “heads in beds.” How much should the city invest in conventions when the hotel industry is doing well, mostly on its own?
But there are a number of new hotels under construction, and Murray said an increased supply of hotel rooms should increase demand for conventions.
“We have 1,000 hotel rooms under construction,” Murray said. “We think those things are correcting themselves.”
Council members were mostly enthusiastic about the project, especially the plan to remake the Stonewall Street entrance. The CRVA said the improvements could begin in fiscal year 2018, which begins next summer.