British Columbia drops Vancouver expansion plan

VANCOUVER -- Almost two years after it was announced, a $663 million plan to revitalize this city's waterfront, which included a massive expansion to the Vancouver Trade & Exhibition Center, has been nixed.

British Columbia Premier Dan Miller canceled the Portside project, citing union issues, the developer's failure to finance a 1,000-room hotel and the province's inability to secure federal government financing.

If the project -- including additional convention and exhibition space, the hotel to be managed by Marriott and the addition of a third cruise ship berth -- had gone ahead, construction was expected to begin this fall, with completion slated for 2003.

Although tourism officials expressed disappointment over the premier's announcement, Rick Antonson, president of Tourism Vancouver, the city's visitor and convention bureau, is optimistic that a new plan for a convention center expansion will emerge.

Antonson said less than two weeks after the Portside project was axed, a task force composed of representatives from the convention center, Tourism Vancouver, the Vancouver Board of Trade and the hotel association was created.

"Its mandate initially is to restate the business case [for a convention center], begin discussions with the federal and provincial governments to determine what they need to commit to [financial] participation and work on a business plan that will eventually focus on one site," he said.

When discussions about expansion began in 1995, two potential sites were identified -- one to the west of the existing facility and another, which was selected for the Portside development, to the east.

Both sites are still available, but Antonson said a decision must be made quickly because either or both sites could "disappear for other uses." He said the task force has targeted March 2000 to develop a new plan and to secure financing commitments.

If the project had gone ahead, the center would have tripled its meeting and trade show space with the addition of a 250,000-square-foot exhibition hall, 82,000 square feet of meeting space, a 50,000-square-foot ballroom and a lecture theater.

Ray LeBlond, communications manager for the convention center, said an expansion is necessary so the city can host larger conventions, with up to about 9,000 delegates, compared with the current 5,000-delegate maximum. It would enable the city to accommodate two smaller conferences, each with about 4,000 to 5,000 participants.

According to projections developed for the now-defunct plan, the expanded facility would have added about $127 million annually in meeting-related spending to a base of about $201 million.

Antonson said he believes the city will eventually get its much-needed expanded facility. "I'm optimistic we will do it because the levels of government believe in the worthiness of expanding the convention center."

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