Make us your home page

Could a convention center be Plan B for St. Petersburg's waterfront?

A convention center for St. Petersburg need not be as large as the Tampa Convention Center, seen here, for it to be viable.

LUIS SANTANA | Times (2010)

A convention center for St. Petersburg need not be as large as the Tampa Convention Center, seen here, for it to be viable.

Imagine life without the iconic Pier, or the Lens project.

It could come to that if the city structures a referendum question that asks residents for an all-or-nothing vote on the Lens project.

A recent Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 poll found that many residents (47 percent) aren't sold on the $50 million project.

So hypothetically, an unfavorable vote on the Lens project could result in $50 million for a project to be named later. Keep in mind, because of the way that money is raised, spending it is limited to downtown, so those funds can't be spent on a new police station or other projects.

Does the city have a backup plan? Or should our leaders have a greater vision beyond whatever replaces the Pier

I'd like to make a case for a medium-sized convention center.

The city, county and the Chamber of Commerce should start talking about a grander vision for the city — beyond being named an arts destination — and look for ways to capitalize on packaging the city's multiple amenities.

A great way to do that — with a focus on job creation — would be to add a convention center near the waterfront.

I'm not talking about an empty space that fills only when a professional group comes to town, but a multiuse complex that could include a major hotel, shops and a permanent home for the Florida Orchestra or a ballet company. A complex similar in size to the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford would be ideal.

That center has 140,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom and 25,000 square feet of flexible meeting space.

Currently, there is no convention center in Pinellas County. Surely there's a market for conventions here.

"We can do meetings for 500 or 600 delegates,'' said D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, speaking in reference to what is currently here.

"There are 11 big meeting spaces in the county, which are mainly in hotels," he said, adding that Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater works with the hotels along the beaches and the different municipalities

So why hasn't there been a push for a convention center here?

The answer is as simple as competition.

"We wouldn't want to compete with anything at the Tampa Convention Center," said Minich, adding that there's already enough competition for conventions between Tampa and Orlando.

The Tampa Convention Center is a 600,000-square-foot facility with 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 36,000-square-foot ballroom, and 36 breakout rooms that total over 42,000 square feet of additional meeting space.

But we're not talking very large conventions in the Sunshine City. There's an opportunity to carve out a niche for the smaller conventions. Admission packages to museums and performing arts events could be an added lure.

A perfect example is the 2011 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts convention. The 5,000 participants at the convention, which was hosted by the Tampa Museum of Art and held at the Tampa Convention Center, spent much of their time here.

No one understands that more than Jeff Shorr, owner of the Craftsman House Gallery Café Pottery Studio.

"We have the biggest clay community in the Southeast right here in St. Petersburg," he said. But there's no mass transit or convention center here.

Many conventioneers spent time here, where the galleries are. They also wanted to browse the shops and restaurants or just go to the beach. While plans for a convention center may not be on the table, there's no time like the present to start talking about the possibilities.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at or at (727) 893-8874 and on Twitter at @StPeteSandi.

Could a convention center be Plan B for St. Petersburg's waterfront? 01/05/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 5, 2013 3:31am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours