Commentary: Austin Convention Center plan could rev up economic engine

You may be hearing some early rumblings about an expansion of the Austin Convention Center and wonder why you should care and support such an effort. It may not be obvious why an increase in tourism to Austin would help those who already live here.

Here’s why: Tourism means jobs. A lot of jobs.

In 2015, Austin and the surrounding area welcomed more than 24 million visitors—folks who toured the Capitol, enjoyed a live music show, visited the LBJ Library, went to the Six Square Black Cultural District, attended festivals and sporting events and experienced one of our many outdoor adventures.

These visitors are responsible for a whopping $7 billion in economic impact, which includes generating an amazing 124,000 jobs in our leisure and hospitality workforce. A good bit of this impact is attributable to folks who are here for conventions. Most business/convention travel occurs during the week, filling a void that leisure travel typically doesn’t, as well as spurring additional leisure travel that wouldn’t exist otherwise. The tourism and hospitality industry is a powerhouse that has grown to be our region’s third-largest employer, according to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Hospitality casts a wide net—it includes thousands of local businesses, hotels, restaurants, musicians, artists and other creatives from every geographic district across the city. A large majority of the sector’s entry-level jobs are ones in which people can grow skills, responsibilities and salaries, while many of these jobs are mid- to high-wage positions. These jobs offer opportunities for high school and college students looking at long-term careers, saving for college or working for extra spending money.

Here’s another reason Austinites should care: More tourism means lower taxes.

All local taxing jurisdictions benefit from revenue generated from the tourism industry. The yearly tax revenue for the city of Austin from tourism alone has reached $33-$38 million, which goes directly to the city’s general fund to help pay for projects in every council district in the city (helping to offset possible increases to property taxes). Without the travel, convention and tourism industry, Travis County residents would have to pay an estimated $1,080 per household per year in state and local taxes to maintain current levels of service.

Tourism helps to diversify our economy as we need to weather regional and national downturns, thus keeping the region’s tax base stronger for school districts, arts and local government services.

There is significant opportunity to add to these economic benefits. Since opening in 1992 and an expansion in 2002, current demand for meeting/exhibit space in downtown vastly exceeds the supply. The convention center is booked at maximum operational capacity — and forced to turn down nearly 50 percent of the requests for future bookings due to a lack of space or availability.

Who pays for the convention center? Our visitors. The current convention center and any future expansion efforts are 100 percent funded by the hotel tax and other convention center revenue —with no negative impact on the city’s general fund. The hotel tax is generously used annually to help fund Austin’s unique cultural arts budget.

A final reason: Tourism is not particularly impactful on parking or traffic.

Most convention center visitors arrive in Austin by air, and a large percentage do not even rent a car while they are here. Even in-state visitors who choose to drive here don’t typically drive once they are in town and parked at their hotel.

Convention center expansion serves as an economic engine for all of Austin and will serve as a catalyst to reinvigorate the entire eastern part of downtown. Now is the time to expand our convention center in a smart and careful way.

Guerrero-McDonald is the Austin chairwoman of the Building Owners and Managers Association, and Kinney is an architect and native Austinite. Both are on the steering committee of A New Vision for Austin’s Convention Center.

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