Colorado Convention Center expansion project begins at last

With the events business slowly crawling out of its COVID-19 crater, the first day of fall was about looking ahead at the Colorado Convention Center, where construction on the long-planned 80,000-square-foot rooftop ballroom is finally underway.

On the sunny side, Denver tourism officials are starting to market it even now, though construction won’t be done until 2023 and it won’t be ready to host events until 2024.

But there is a darker side: The latest estimates from Visit Denver, the city’s tourism and visitors bureau, is that the COVID-19 pandemic cost the same convention center more than 800 meetings and the city, its hotels, restaurants and other businesses an estimated $1.2 billion in combined economic impact.

Visit Denver isn’t looking past 2022 or giving up on rebooking events that were postponed during the past 18 months. Rachel Benedick, Visit Denver’s vice president of convention sales and service, said Wednesday that the American Public Health Association will be hosting a hybrid in-person and online meeting next month that’s expected to bring more than 2,500 people through the convention center’s existing space. The construction is expected to have a limited impact on existing events.

“We do feel good about the fall,” she said. “2022 will continue to be a transition year as well.”

Benedick did not provide a specific number of events on the center’s calendar for 2022, though she said Visit Denver started booking for it 10 years ago.

The ballroom, which was delayed by a bid-rigging scandal and a period when it was being reserved as a COVID-19 overflow medical facility, is the star of the 250,000-square-foot convention center expansion that will also add an outdoor terrace and upgrade technology.

Mayor Michael Hancock and other dignitaries gathered on the roof of the center’s parking structure Wednesday to celebrate construction beginning, which is estimated to cost: $233 million with work slated to wrap in 2023.

The convention center opened in 1990 and underwent a major expansion that was completed in 2005. If this project lives up to officials’ expectations, it will add 2,000 new hospitality jobs in the city and generate an extra $85 million a year when considering at combined receipts from the facility, bars, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

It’s not just about bringing in larger events, Benedick said, but also creating options for hosting multiple events.

“It allows us to layer business and have a really consistent amount of business,” she said. “We’re selling out to 2031 right now and beyond honestly.”

Hancock used the occasion to stump for investing in infrastructure as a catalyst for economic growth. His administration is hoping voters support $450 million worth of bonds on the ballot this November.

A major chunk of the project budget, $104 million, is coming from a 2015 voter-approved extension of extra taxes on rental cars and hotel rooms. That same tax extension is being used to fund a portion of the National Western Center redevelopment.

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