Five years after Phoenix broke ground on the $600 million transformation of Civic Plaza into a major meetings venue able to compete with those in other tourism-focused destinations, the renamed Phoenix Convention Center is ready for its official debut.
While the center kept hosting meetings throughout the phased construction period, two conventions with a combined delegate count topping 5,000, will be first in the finally done digs. The American Meteorological Society and Professional Photographers of America are scheduled to use the facilities starting Jan. 7.
The Convention Center’s final dab of paint and twist of light bulbs comes just as the travel industry faces its biggest downturn since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But Jay Green, director of the massive three-building complex dwarfing downtown, said the timing is fortuitous.
“With the economy the way it is, this elevates us in convention center (drawing power). The old (Civic Plaza) was the 69th biggest in the country. Now we are in the top 20.”
Green said that means the Valley venue has enough room to host 80 percent to 85 percent of the meetings held annually in the United States.
Expanding the pot of possibilities is especially important now since some get-togethers will be downsized or canceled by economic pressures, he said.
Green said the biggest meetings are typically staged not by businesses but by associations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Southern Baptists or the National Rifle Association.
Those and several similar groups already have reserved space at the new Valley venue during the next couple of years and expect 12,000-plus delegates to attend each session.
For 2009, 66 conventions with an estimated combined attendance of 288,000 delegates are signed up, Green said.
In February, the venue will be the site of the NBA All-Star Jam Session, basketball’s inter-active public playground, similar to Super Bowl’s NFL Experience.
The NRA is expected to bring as many as 50,000 gun-advocates to town in May, and even sooner, in January, Elite Racing will host 28,000 for the annual PF Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.
Later in January, about 8,000 Mary Kay cosmetics leaders are expected to park their pink Cadillacs in downtown Phoenix
That’s good news for hotels around the East Valley as well as central Phoenix, said Robert Brinton, president of the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Even if fewer delegates show up than originally projected, association members typically come to annual meetings, especially when they are held in a destination as desirable as the Valley, Brinton said. And when tens of thousands of people crowd into downtown Phoenix, they fill up hotels and restaurants from all corners of the metro area, he said.
“It’s a big benefit to have this business on the books,” Brinton said.
Besides, he said, the new Convention Center will position Valley tourism to soar once the economic downturn is over, he said.
“You have to look at a convention center as a long-term investment,” Brinton said.
That investment, funded by the state and the city of Phoenix, triple-sized the meeting space to 900,000 square feet, added $3.2 million worth of public art and includes such sustainable initiatives as a garden watered by air conditioner condensation, a solar-power generation plant and 29,000 chairs made from recycled tires and car batteries.
The Center employs 250, will be able to feed 360 people every eight minutes and has lined up 700 salt and pepper shakers and 14,000 sets of tableware in case it has to serve a hoped-for crowd of hungry conventioneers.