Pandemic be damned, Midwest convention centers plot expansions

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St. Louis and Indianapolis are pressing forward with convention center expansion plans, arguing the economic jolt is needed and the COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t stand in the way of the facilities’ future competitiveness.

The coronavirus has brought the convention industry to a near standstill.

A rendering of the St. Louis convention center expansion

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett is pursuing City-County Council approval in September for up to $155 million in bonds to expand the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis, including a new ballroom and expanded meeting space. Two new hotels would be financed by developers.

Tax-increment financing revenue that now goes to the Marion County Capital Improvement Board and new TIF revenue generated by the hotels would repay the bonds. The measure cleared a committee vote last week.

The full City-County Council is expected to take up the plan in September and if approved, the Metropolitan Development Commission would then vote on the borrowing.

Backers say the expansion will provide an economic shot in the arm from several thousand construction jobs and will preserve existing convention business once the pandemic’s impact eases while allowing Indianapolis to lure larger conventions and trade shows it loses out on to larger facilities.

“We believe that this is absolutely a ‘do it or lose it’ in many cases,” Visit Indy’s chief executive officer Leonard Hoops told the Metropolitan Economic Development Committee at a recent hearing.

The St. Louis Municipal Finance Corporation last week approved a $105 million financing to expand the America’s Center Convention Complex over the objection of critics who worry about the pandemic’s hit to revenues that would repay the bonds.

“COVID-19 is not going away soon, but we know as a nation we will overcome it. Businesses will rebound, and tourism jobs and conventions will come back. We must plan for a positive future for the working families in our region, and America’s Center is part of that future,” said Comptroller Darlene Green, who sits on the corporation along with Mayor Lyda Krewson, and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed.

The corporation’s vote had been stalled for months due to the pandemic and concerns over its affordability. St. Louis City and St. Louis County have committed $105 million each to complete the expansion project.

The St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission operates the complex. The financing plan calls for issuing 40-year bonds that would repaid with city and county revenue collected from a 3.5% hotel tax. That revenue currently goes to repay bonds issued to finance construction of the former Edward Jones Dome stadium. The state pays $12 million and the county and city each pay $6 million.

That venue — now called the Dome at America's Center — is part of the convention complex and was home to the National Football League’s Rams before the team moved to Los Angeles in 2016. When the team fled, about $144 million was still owed on the bonds, which are fully retired in 2021.

Supporters tout the need to stem the decline of event bookings and attract new events due to expansions and upgrades in other cities. The convention center dates to 1977. Critics say the pandemic raises too many questions over whether the city afford the project.

The Wisconsin Center District, which owns the Milwaukee convention center, recently sold refinancing bonds to ease debt service pressures and pave the way for an approved expansion.

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