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Looking for that Elusive Convention Center Touchdown

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, February 02, 2011, at 09:02AM
Farmers Field Announcement Eric Richardson

Supporters of AEG's plans to bring an NFL stadium and events center to Downtown Los Angeles crowd on stage after a press conference announcing a $700-million naming rights deal.



While the potential return of the NFL to Los Angeles is the news making headlines, speakers at a Tuesday press conference where AEG and Farmers Insurance announced their $700-million naming rights deal for “Farmers Field” were just as excited about the chance to finally energize the Los Angeles Convention Center, a facility that has always seemed to be one step away from greatness since opening in 1971.

Construction of AEG’s proposed stadium would require the demolition of the Convention Center’s original West Hall, space that the company has promised to replace via a new convention hall and multipurpose room in the stadium “events center.”

“I really look forward to this project because I know that this project is not about nine football games and a Super Bowl,” said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, chair of the City Council’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism committee. “It is about that, and it’s also about getting a new stadium, but … it’s about getting a brand new Convention Center.”

Even when this facility was brand new, though, the Los Angeles Convention Center was already behind the game.

Early Plans

Talk about the city’s need for a convention facility first began in the early 1940’s. World War II delayed planning slightly, but by the end of the decade backers had coalesced around the concept of building an auditorium and trade fair hall next to Bunker Hill. The facility would have risen on the blocks today occupied by the Bonaventure Hotel, Union Bank tower and the World Trade Center. Three times in the early 1950’s voters turned down propositions that would have funded the project.

In the 1960’s, simultaneous efforts were put into building convention center facilities in Elysian Park and underneath Exposition Park. 63 of Elysian Park’s 575 acres would have gone to the facility, which would have created 485,000 square feet of convention space. The proposal brought an outcry from citizens who valued the city’s green spaces.

The underground exhibit hall located a few miles down Figueroa would have added 250,000 square feet of open space, with meeting rooms to seat 7,300.

Both proposals were killed in August of 1966 when the City Council selected 31 acres at Pico and Figueroa as the center’s new home.

The Center Opens

On July 10, 1971, the city opened its new Los Angeles Convention and Exhibition Center, the building now known as the West Hall. A 700-voice choir sang as Mayor Sam Yorty cut the ribbon to dedicate the new facility.

Even once the site had been selected, getting it built had been no easy process. Councilman Marvin Braude objected strenuously to the plan put together to sell $38.5 million in bonds to construct the facility, calling it “an incredible tangle of unverified claims enticingly packaged in dazzling wrappings.”

His objections sound much like those of opponents of the stadium plan today. He worried that the city would end up on the hook for the bonds’ $47 million in interest if the facility failed to be self-supporting.

It turns out, he was right. By the end of the 1979 fiscal year the facility was running a $700,000 yearly deficit on its bond payments. Blamed for the losses was an office and hotel project that was supposed to have been built next door, the additional rooms making the facility more attractive to visiting conventions.

Expansion Plans

In 1980, the city spent $2.5 million to add 105,000 square feet to the Convention Center in the form of the North Hall, but already there was talk of a much larger expansion project to keep up with the growing size of marquee conventions.

A $350-million expansion plan approved in 1986 and opened in 1993 only ended up exacerbating the center’s financial woes. The green-glassed addition won acclaim for its design and the center’s new space, but the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake took a toll on convention bookings.

In 1996, Councilmembers struggling to balance the city’s budget were shocked to find themselves on the hook for a $21 million payment to cover debt payments at the Convention Center.

Again, the blame went to hotels.

"The client reaction to the center is extremely favorable. The biggest single impediment in terms of selling the center is really the hotel industry," Convention and Visitors Bureau President George Kirkland told the L.A. Times. He pushed the city to develop a plan for hotels near the Convention Center.

In Steps the Arena

Only a few months later, developer Ed Roski sent the city a proposal to develop a $200-million arena on the site of the Convention Center’s North Hall. He asked that the city issue up to $70.5 million in bonds to pay for land that they would turn over to the arena developers, who would then privately finance a facility to become home to the NHL’s Kings—a team that Roski and Phil Anschutz had recently purchased out of bankruptcy—and the NBA’s Lakers.

The development team set an aggressive deadline, saying that construction would need to begin by September of 1997—just 13 months after the proposal was first made—in order to open for the 1999 basketball season. To make that happen, they told the city that they needed an answer in just two months.

They did not get one.

While the City Council fawned over the arena concept, Councilman Joel Wachs was the most vocal in balking at issuing bonds that the city could be left responsible to pay. Even Rita Walters, Councilwoman for the 9th district and an early proponent of the plan, eventually came out vocally against it.

As summer turned to fall in 1997, Kings President Tim Leiweke negotiated a deal that should sound very familiar in the current stadium debate: L.A. Arena Co. would guarantee to pay back any bond costs not covered by increased tax revenues.

With the current stadium plan, Leiweke, now CEO of AEG, came out of the gate promising that AEG would make the same deal on the $350-million in bonds that it expects the city to issue. That money would go toward building a new exhibit hall over Pico Blvd.

On Tuesday he reiterated that pledge, and said that he expects to pay out over the deal’s first few years. “And if there is ever a shortfall—and there will be on an annual basis, we predict—when there’s a shortfall, each and every year, on paying that debt service, Mayor, we will step up and we will pay the shortfall until the bonds are paid off,” Leiweke said. “We will never ask for a dollar from you, from the general fund or from the taxpayers. I promise.”

That promise was enough to get a deal done in 1997. The next few months should tell whether it is enough to get a deal done in 2011, and whether this time the deal is finally right to turn the Convention Center into the self-sustaining asset the city has always wanted.

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