Hunches, clichés and rosy projections (from contract holders) should not be relied upon for mapping the future of the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center.
Nor, with the center's annual general fund subsidy at $8 million, should the Fresno City Council again rush to make changes that taxpayers might later regret.
Then-Mayor Alan Autry used his political muscle to bring about privatization of operations at the center and a pact with his hand-picked contractor, Philadelphia-based SMG, in 2003. But the record clearly shows that predictions of packed houses at Selland Arena and Saroyan Theater, and conventiongoers flocking to the two exhibit halls have not come to pass.
It is a tough market for the downtown buildings. Selland Arena, Saroyan Theatre and Valdez Hall are 47 years old. The new Exhibit Hall is almost 14 years old. There is stiff competition from the Save Mart Center for top-flight acts, and the entertainment market has changed dramatically with the rise of Indian gaming casinos. The Great Recession has cut into convention opportunities.
Fresno City Council Member Lee Brand had pored through the financials, and says the entire operation must be better run. He wants the City Council to either renegotiate the contract with SMG or put the contract back out to bid. Brand says the city is entitled to either option because SMG has failed to meet benchmarks in its contract.
We applaud Brand for his interest in the center's operations because the city needs to stretch every general fund dollar and these facilities are vital to downtown and its continuing revitalization. Brand spent many hours digging to learn what the Convention Center is taking in and what it costs to operate. He is spot on in saying, as he did at a Bee editorial board meeting, that this information must be readily available to council members and should be updated throughout the year.
However, it is important that the council focus on the larger question: How does the Convention Center fit into the future of downtown and the entire city? We suggest that the city hire an independent consultant to inspect the facilities and do a market analysis of acts and conventions that can be successfully booked there. We also suggest that this consultant analyze Chukchansi Park, as well, and determine whether it is suitable for events besides baseball.
It could be that Selland has outlived its usefulness and should be demolished when its bond debt is retired. It's possible that the city would be better to expand its convention capacity by using the land Selland now occupies. Or it could be that Selland, with upgrades, could last another 30 years. We don't know. That's why independent analysis is needed.
The other big question is whether the convention center should be run by someone other than SMG, which also operates the Save Mart Center. We believe that competition is a good thing; Autry believed otherwise in this case and convinced the council to hire SMG.
But the question of who operates the Convention Center belongs on the back burner until the city learns the facts and possibilities for its downtown complex. This will require teaming with Mayor Ashley Swearengin's administration, hiring an independent consultant and hearing from all of the stakeholders involved in downtown, entertainment and conventions.
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