Expanded Convention Center opens

The expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center is now complete. On Friday, Philadelphia officials cut the ribbon on the $786 million project that created one of the largest convention venues in the country.

Now the rest of the city has to catch up with it.

The expanded center is many things. It is the largest publicly funded building project in the state; it holds the biggest ballroom on the East Coast; and it offers space enough to host two major conventions at once.

Mayor Michael Nutter describes three of its most important aspects: “More jobs, more jobs and more jobs.”

Nutter said he is counting on the Convention Center to play a role in the economic revitalization of the city. The challenge now is to fill it.

The president of the center, Ahmeenah Young, said she does not yet know just how much activity the expanded center can handle before it maxes out. But it’s generally understood that when the expanded center is at full capacity, the city would not be able to house all its conventioneers. Philadelphia is 2,000 hotel rooms short.

“Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” said Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In this case, the chicken is the Convention Center opening today, and there will be more hotel rooms that will come on line.”

Conventions are booked several years out, but the center is still only booked to a fraction of its capacity. In the past, the Convention Center’s reputation has been dogged by union labor rules that have complicated meeting setups. That could be changing.

“The unions and ourselves realize that we’re no longer in the business of renting space, we’re in the hospitality business,” said Convention Center Authority Board chairman Thomas “Buck” Riley. “The unions have recognized it, we have recognized it, we all have changes to make. The labor unions have already started a hospitality group within the union–a training group.”

The maiden voyage of the Convention Center expansion will begin next week, with a large convention of nurses. The Philadelphia International Flower Show is now using most of the original convention space.

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