SAN JOSE -- San Jose was at a crossroads two and a half years ago when leaders of a city already deep in debt and plagued with budget shortfalls weighed a major makeover of the city's aging convention center. Though hotels had agreed to pay for the project with higher room-taxes, there was a risk to the city's budget if economic assumptions didn't pan out.
But the alternative was to cede convention business and the millions of dollars it pumps into San Jose's downtown to bigger and more modern rivals. As Mayor Chuck Reed put it when the City Council unanimously approved bond funding for the modernization, it was less risky than doing nothing.
On Thursday and Friday, San Jose will officially unveil the fruits of that $130 million face-lift, finished on time and on budget, which already has drawn rave reviews from the first organization to book the rebuilt center.
"We loved it!" said Deirdre Clemmons, vice president of conventions for Airports Council International North America, which held its annual conference in the convention center late last month, drawing more than 1,700 attendees to discuss airport industry trends in an event that was expected to generate more than $4 million in local spending. "It's really, really nice and well done."
The public is invited to see what all the fuss is about Thursday when the city hosts a free community day starting at 4:30 p.m. at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. That will be followed by a grand opening gala Friday evening. The events feature a Looney Tunes theme and performances by Symphony Silicon Valley of Warner Brothers' Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II. Thursday's community day will feature food, raffles and other activities.
"This is a place for the community," said Meghan Horrigan, communications director for Team San Jose, the nonprofit that operates the city's convention center and downtown performing arts theaters.
San Jose officials originally considered a much bigger $300 million makeover for the convention center, which opened in 1989 and pumps more than $86 million in annual spending into downtown. But tightening budgets and a sour economy forced city leaders to scale back. The council in March 2011 approved a $120 million expansion and renovation, but added an additional $10 million to cover remodeling the kitchen and air conditioning system. The economic downturn created a favorable construction market that made the additions affordable, Horrigan said.
The modernization boosted total square footage from 425,000 to 550,000. A new grand ballroom, built on the site of the city's old main library, is 35,000 square feet, a much-needed boost over the old center's 22,000 square feet of ballroom space.
"We compete on a better scale now because of the ballroom," Horrigan said.
Susan Ferraro, communications manager for the International Association of Venue Managers, a trade group, said ballrooms are key to booking larger events.
"Whenever they can host all their attendees in one place it makes a big difference," Ferraro said. Clemmons agreed, adding that it will "help them stay competitive with other centers their size" and that it "opens up new opportunities."
"They needed it," Clemmons said.
The renovated kitchen adds dining capacity that would have sorely limited the updated center's ability to serve at major events.
"That's probably a smart investment," Ferraro said. "One of the big revenue generators is food and beverages."
Clemmons said her attendees raved about the food, which she said "wasn't your standard banquet chicken."
While San Jose doesn't necessarily compete with larger facilities such as San Francisco's Moscone Center at more than a million square feet, the city is better positioned now to attract events that otherwise might have gone to Sacramento, San Diego, Anaheim or Long Beach.
Of course, many of the centers old elements remain, including the "South Hall" portable tent. Horrigan explained that it remains popular with certain types of events such as auto shows. And the original entrance with its red, black and white tile Lin Utzon mural remains on the San Carlos Street side.
But there is a new interactive artwork in front and a friendlier plaza with shade trees and level ground to accommodate outdoor meetings. The new artwork, called the "Idea Tree," recycles comments spoken into a nearby horn into new sounds.
Inside the entryway along San Carlos Street, new paint, carpeting and reclaimed redwood trim soften what had been a stark concrete interior. Colored paths in the carpeting help guide visitors to their destination rooms. Efficient LED lighting and concrete recycled from the old library for the ballroom are expected to help the remodeled center meet a Silver rating from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system.
"It is a really excellent job of bringing a fine, 24-year-old building into the 21st century with all the changes that period of time entailed," said former Mayor Tom McEnery, who presided over the center's original opening. "They kept the best; changed the rest in a significant way."
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.
About the San Jose McEnery Convention Center: