South San Francisco to study possible expansion of conference center 

click to enlarge The South San Francisco Convention Center is currently 20,500 square feet, but would increase to 100,000 under a proposed expansion. It would cost up to $200 million. - COURTESY SSFCONF.COM
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  • The South San Francisco Convention Center is currently 20,500 square feet, but would increase to 100,000 under a proposed expansion. It would cost up to $200 million.

Hoping to better accommodate the booming Bay Area tech industry's demand for convention space, South San Francisco is looking at expanding the South San Francisco Conference Center.

With approval from the City Council on Wednesday, the facility's new budget includes funding to study the feasibility of a major expansion. The project could transform the 20,500-square-foot building into a convention center with nearly five times its current capacity, and might include the addition of a four-star hotel.

Located just north of San Francisco International Airport, the conference center was built in 1993 and is partly funded by a $2.50 per night surcharge on hotel rooms, which the city levies in addition to its transient occupancy tax. City officials say the facility can be an attractive option for event planners wishing to avoid the expenses associated with holding conferences in downtown San Francisco.

Another advantage the convention complex currently holds over some of its competitors is availability, city officials tout. The Moscone Center, San Francisco's largest convention site, for example, is booked through 2024. But while planners might have an easier time scheduling events at the South San Francisco center, size is one area where officials say it can't compete. Its current capacity allows it to host conferences with up to 1,200 attendees, and it's typically booked for meetings in the 25- to 500-person range, according to conference center Executive Director Dean Grubl.

The proposed expansion to 100,000 square feet may not rival Moscone Center's 1 million-square-foot capacity, Grubl noted, but it would put South San Francisco on a similar footing with Sacramento and Santa Clara, whose convention centers have capacities of 134,000 and 302,000 square feet, respectively. The project is anticipated to cost as much as $200 million.

Grubl said the feasibility study would determine whether there would be sufficient demand for an expanded facility. Another priority would be to assess whether such an expansion is feasible at the conference center's South Airport Boulevard location, he said. If not, a new facility could be built at an alternate site, the executive director noted.

Although owned by the city, the conference center is a separate entity, with an authority board administering its budget. The study is projected to cost about $100,000, with the city paying for up to half of that cost out of its general fund, and the remainder coming out of the facility's budget. Councilman Mark Addiego raised concerns about that expenditure at a recent City Council meeting.

In an interview with The San Francisco Examiner, Addiego explained that the property currently has about $2 million in reserves, thanks to the city's $2.50 hotel room surcharge and the brisk business its hotels have seen in recent years. But in order to keep the total room cost to travelers competitive, South San Francisco imposes a lower transient-occupancy tax than neighboring cities, he explained. The councilman noted that while the reduced hotel tax contributes to the city's general fund, the $2.50 surcharge only funds the conference center.

"We get less money per hotel room, so we're already giving up a great deal," Addiego said.

Although he wanted to remind the public and his fellow council members about the indirect contribution the city already makes to the conference center by collecting lower hotel taxes, Addiego supported the study, saying the expansion project could bring significant economic benefits to the area.

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