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Phoenix considers entertainment district around convention center

After many years of adding residents, restaurants and high-rises in downtown Phoenix, leaders are envisioning the next wave of economic development. And it will likely include a convention center expansion and a new entertainment district.

In February, more than 3,500 people attended the International Franchise Association’s convention. The group last visited Phoenix in 2019.

“And we've seen a lot of change downtown in the city. It's really, really great,” said Matt Haller, IFM president and CEO. “The restaurant scene here has been fantastic. The hospitality staff at our hotels in the convention center has been really great.”

It’s estimated nearly 2,000 businesses operate in the downtown area, generally from Seventh Street to Seventh Avenue and Jackson Street to McDowell Road. But some say a key amenity is missing.

Ron Price, president and CEO of Visit Phoenix, the organization that markets Phoenix as a convention destination, said downtown needs another hotel offering between 800 and 1,200 rooms. 

“I always allude to when I first got here three years ago, I think it was New York Life that was looking to relocate one of their largest conventions, and they wanted to come here so bad, and for us to host New York Life, we would need to put them in 15 hotels around the city in order to accommodate that,” he said.

Talk of a new hotel isn’t new. It was highlighted in a 2019 market study on the convention center. The report also recommended more meeting rooms, exhibit space and a bigger ballroom. 

Price recently told council members that other cities are spending big bucks on their convention centers — LA and Denver are expanding while Austin is rebuilding.

“They decided as a city, with the convention business booming, let's tear down the existing Convention Center down to the ground and rebuild it. And so they're looking at $1.27 billion development and expansion, their convention center. And then, finally, Dallas did the same thing,” he said.

As competitors expand or bulldoze to build new, Phoenix is looking to up its game. Xandon Keating with the city’s economic development department described the idea behind creating an entertainment district around the convention center.  

“When they walk out of the convention center. Here's where you go. Here's where the fun stuff is. When you're done with your meetings for the day and you want to experience the city,” he said.

The City Council will be asked to approve a half a million dollar contract for a consultant to help identify, establish and activate an entertainment district that would brand the area. Think San Antonio’s River Walk, Seattle’s Pike Street and Nashville’s Music City Center.

Even though an entertainment district would be around the convention center, Christine Mackay, Phoenix’s Economic Development director, said it would not be limited to conventioneers or downtown residents.

“But it really would be to engage all of our citizens, not only in Phoenix, but around the Valley to reimagine downtown,” she said.

"But it really would be to engage all of our citizens, not only in Phoenix, but around the Valley to reimagine downtown." — Christine Mackay, Phoenix economic development director

Reimagining is one thing, coming up with money to execute is another. Vice Mayor Debra Stark said she’s committed to growing convention business and wants state lawmakers to let cities offer more tax incentives to developers.

“Because we need those types of tools. We’re competing, as you pointed out, with all these other cities and they have those tools,” she said.

In 2024, Phoenix expects to welcome 304,000 convention attendees who will spend 340,000 nights in hotels. This year’s expected attendance will be the largest since 2009, which was the first year after the convention center’s expansion.

A 2019 study of convention center attendees found that 87% live outside metro Phoenix, with 70% from another state and 10% from another country.

A 2022 study by Longwoods International found the business/convention traveler spent an average of $327 compared to the average leisure traveler at $211. In addition to hotels, convention business supports caterers, restaurants, entertainment venues and transportation.

Eric Kerr, vice president of Visit Phoenix, said 64% of Phoenicians surveyed think the positive benefits of tourism outweigh the negative, “And 67% of our residents agreed that we should continue to encourage tourism here, also higher than the national average.” 

Expanding the convention center, adding a major hotel, and developing an entertainment district would be a massive undertaking. Ron Price said ideally, they should happen at the same time.

“We don't want to have multiple construction projects going on that’s going to last many, many years,” he said.

"We don't want to have multiple construction projects going on that’s going to last many, many years." — Ron Price, Visit Phoenix, president and CEO

If the council approves hiring a consultant for an entertainment district, public input could be gathered this summer with a final plan ready before the end of the year.

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.