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Abundant space

Space can have its limits. Especially space for large events. Convention
space is abundant in Central Pennsylvania, which could forestall
development of and additions to the midstate’s convention centers,
according to tourism and economic development officials.

Space can have its limits. Especially space for large events.

Convention space is abundant in Central Pennsylvania, which could forestall development of and additions to the midstate’s convention centers, according to tourism and economic development officials.

Dauphin County has the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center, which has 172,000 square feet in its expo hall alone. York County has the York Expo Center with 74,000 square feet in its Toyota Arena, and the Lancaster County Convention Center has 45,000 square feet.

Despite the abundance of space, the region has modest demand for convention space, especially in Cumberland County. But it’s unlikely more convention centers will be built soon, economic development officials and businesspeople said.

Cumberland County needs a large convention center, said Christine Sczypta, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott Harrisburg West in Lower Allen Township. She’s also the president of the Cumberland Valley Lodging Association, a local advocacy group of hotel owners and managers.

Most of the banquet and meeting spaces in Cumberland County are about 30,000 square feet or less, she said. But the other counties have much larger facilities, she said.

“No one place in Cumberland County has a space large enough to host very big events,” Sczypta said. “Apples to apples, there’s just no comparison to those other facilities.”

Cumberland County couldn’t support something as big as the Farm Show Complex, but a center between 30,000 and 100,000 square feet would help attract larger events, especially in the winter, she said.

North Carolina-based Randall Travel Marketing identified off-season events as a need for Cumberland County in a tourism study the company completed in March.

A Cumberland County convention center is unlikely to open in the next five years, said Omar Shute, executive director of the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp. The economy is poor, and few companies will make the investment, he said.

“It wouldn’t be like Lancaster, where it’s publicly driven,” Shute said. “We would most certainly help out and support it, but a private entity would have to be the lead on such a project.”

Demand for convention centers is unusual because most centers are publicly owned. That means even if an area has available convention space, cities often add to it based on speculation, said Heywood Sanders, a University of Texas-San Antonio professor who conducted a study of convention center space and declining attendance.

Hotel-operated banquet and meeting space is checked by market forces, Sanders said. If a hotel can’t rent its space, it’s not going to build another banquet hall. But cities that operate convention centers often expand or build centers based on the idea that the added space will attract more business, he said.

“Because the government is borrowing the money, they don’t have to go through the same approval process that a private entity does,” he said.

Expansion often goes forward based on the advice of consulting groups, which most often project that convention center expansion will increase hotel-room rentals, he said.

In many cases, the convention centers are expanding, but the hotel rooms are still empty, Sanders said.

A 2005 study he authored showed that U.S. convention center space grew from about 40 million square feet in 1990 to nearly 61 million in 2003, a 51 percent increase. Capital spending on convention center expansion and construction in the U.S. grew from $1.2 billion in 1993 to $2.4 billion annually from 2001 to 2003, according to the study.

However, demand for that space was declining, Sanders said. Many cities have seen convention attendance drop 40 percent to 60 percent since the 1990s, he said.

Attendance at the 200 largest conventions and trade shows in the U.S. hit its peak in 1996 with 5.1 million people, according to the study. Over the next three years, convention attendance dropped nearly 12 percent, to 4.5 million, before jumping slightly in 2000.

It was all downhill from 2000 on, according to Sanders’ study. In 2003, attendance dropped to 4.1 million, a 20 percent decline from 1996.

Room nights, or one room rented for one night, also fell in most cities with large convention centers, even after expansion projects that were supposed to increase hotel business by attracting larger events, Sanders said.

Lancaster County has seen declines in room rentals over the past three years, but that’s a function of the recession, said Chris Barrett, president of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Ninety percent of the events scheduled this year are first-time events, drawing larger crowds because the Lancaster County Convention Center is available, he said.

“So this is new business for us, new people who have never been to Lancaster before,” Barrett said. “Now people know where Lancaster is, which gives us a better chance to get them to come back.”

York County also has seen declines in hotel rentals because of the economy, said Anne Druck, president of the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau. For now, convention space in the county is sufficient, but that could change when the economy rebounds, she said.

If the number of events and attendance at the York Expo Center grows, hotel-room rentals increase and organizers turn away events because of lack of space, then there could be a need for expansion, Druck said.

“It’s very hard for me to predict what 2010 will bring,” she said.

Central Pennsylvania’s convention space as a whole is good, the Marriott’s Sczypta said. The region is not faced with the same problems as major cities: hundreds of thousands of square feet in convention space and not enough business to fill it, she said.

Lancaster County and the rest of the region have enough convention space for the time being, Barrett said.

“Based on the area, I think supply is pretty strong,” he said. “I can’t see us building large convention facilities for years to come, at least in this county.”

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