- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

Lewis H. Dawley III is calm in these final weeks leading up to the opening of the biggest building in Washington.
He's done this before.
The general manager and chief executive of the Washington Convention Center Authority is preparing to open his third building at the end of the month.
The new Washington Convention Center, a 2.3-million-square-foot facility costing $833 million, is expected to pump about $1.4 billion into the local economy and attract 3 million visitors a year.
What's more, city officials hope the new center finally will put the District on the map as a premier convention destination a goal it couldn't reach with the current 880,000-square-foot building.
"The convention center is well-positioned to compete for the national and international business it was built for," says Douglas Ducate, president and chief executive of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, based in Chicago.
Despite the center's size it can hold two Washington Monuments the District still won't be able to compete for conventions that can fit only in larger centers in cities such as Las Vegas and Chicago. And the city doesn't have the marketing dollars to be a heavy hitter internationally.
But officials say the new center, which will be able to accommodate the majority of the nation's meetings and conventions, is a needed boost for the city's convention business.
The old center, which resembles a bunker with no windows, soon will be empty. City officials are trying to decide what to do with the space and are studying proposals that include housing, stores, a library and concert halls.
But for now, the attention is on the state-of-the-art facility across the street. Construction is winding down, with final steps from paint touch-ups to screwing in light bulbs being checked off the to-do list.
Mr. Dawley's job is to transition flawlessly from the existing, outdated building to one of the largest convention centers in the country.
"We want to make this as smooth and painless of a transition as possible," says Mr. Dawley, who has opened new centers in Minneapolis and Philadelphia and oversaw expansion of Detroit's convention center.
That might be easier said than done. At the end of the month, he and his 200-person staff barely will have time for a break.
"We can't close down," Mr. Dawley says. "Things will be going on right up to the last minute."
The last event at the old center between Seventh and Ninth streets NW will be practice sessions and other activities March 20-27 related to the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships. Grand-opening festivities begin March 29 at the new center and will last through the weekend.
The first official show in the new building will be FOSE, the largest government information-technology exhibition, scheduled for April 8-10, with an expected 18,000 in attendance.
The Washington Convention Center has hosted the show for 20 years.
"There's no market other than Washington to do this event, because it's the home of the federal government," says Bill Howell, executive vice president of PostNewsweek Tech Media, which produces the show. "We're getting ready to move into a new house."
Out with the old
The new center has been more than a decade in the making, and the building hit some rough patches after the groundbreaking in October 1998.
In addition to design challenges, the $650 million initial cost estimate climbed to more than $830 million because of problems ranging from the collapse of steel girders to the removal of unexpected hazardous materials.
Mr. Dawley, who joined the Washington Convention Center Authority in 1997, was not sure at times if the project would get off the ground. He was faced with strong opposition but stronger support.
"How do you build this in a way that won't destroy people's lives?" Mr. Dawley asks. "It had its moments of difficulty."
Neighborhood residents and city officials were concerned about the initial design, which was too massive and looked much like a spaceship that did not fit in, says Allen Y. Lew, managing director of development at the authority.
So the building was redesigned. The scaled-down version, with low edges and a high center, was accepted in fall 1998. Much of the exhibit space is below ground, keeping the building within the city's height limitations and making it appear less bulky.
"We didn't want it to look like [the existing building]," Mr. Lew says.
The new facility, with its 300-foot, curved-glass entry, 80-foot skylights, elaborate ballroom and massive exhibition spaces and meeting rooms, doesn't bear any resemblance to the old building.
"I believe that this convention center will change the standard of convention centers the way [Oriole Park at] Camden Yards changed the standard for baseball stadiums," says Michael Dickens, president of Hospitality Partners and vice chairman of the Convention Center Authority board.
The center's amenities from the fiber-optic network and the special glass that gives off natural light to the 44,000 square feet of retail space can't be compared with those of its windowless neighbor.
"Everyone had this mental picture that we were just going to build a bigger [version]," says Tom Ventulett, senior principal at Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates, one of three architecture firms working on the project. "My vision was completely the opposite."
Mr. Ventulett's firm has designed dozens of convention centers around the world, including the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta and the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.
"We're always taking a fresh look at a site, and we play off our successes," he says.
The new facility covers six square blocks. Situated at the newly renovated and expanded Mount Vernon Square Metro stop, the center splits into three sections with L and M streets running through it.
Only 150 parking spaces are available for employees, but officials say the Metro and the 5,000 parking spots within a 10-minute walk will accommodate the traffic.
The center boasts approximately 730,000 square feet of exhibit space about 500,000 square feet of contiguous space on one level and about 230,000 square feet on another. The 70 meeting rooms contain a total of about 125,000 square feet.
"There are high spaces and it's big, but it's a welcoming building," says Ted Mariani, founder of Mariani Architects Engineers in the District, which also collaborated on the design. Devrouax & Purnell Architects-Planners, in the District, is the other firm.
The 52,000-square-foot ballroom is elaborate in design and function holding as many as 3,000 guests for a sit-down dinner.
"For Washington, D.C., more than any other city, it is an important space," Mr. Ventulett says. "It carries with it a sense of seriousness and formality. As big as it is, it has intimacy."
City and tourism officials say the building is among the 10 largest in the country. But with new centers coming online and constant expansions, it's difficult to give it an exact ranking.
However, the total exhibition space ranks as the 16th largest in the country, according to Tradeshow Week. McCormick Place, in Chicago, offers the largest exhibit space with 2.2 million square feet.
In with the new
It's no secret that Washington has been bypassed by important business because of its reliance on the 20-year-old, 880,000-square-foot convention center not large enough to attract big players to the nation's capital.
"That building is obsolete," Mr. Dawley says. "Unfortunately, we've been losing a lot of business."
At least 187 meetings already have been booked through 2020, according to the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp. (WCTC), the city's marketing arm.
"There is pent-up demand for the nation's capital," says William A. Hanbury, WCTC's president and chief executive.
That business includes old meetings and new conventions the city has lured away from competitors.
"We had an undersized facility [without] the technology platform needed to be competitive in this business," Mr. Hanbury says. "This truly is the last piece to put us on the board of premier global destinations."
In July 2006, the International Union Against Cancer's 19th international congress will be held in the District for the first time, drawing as many as 6,000 visitors. The District beat out Beijing and Vancouver, British Columbia, as the host city.
"The new convention center was a major feature of this bid," says Mike Heron, vice president of public affairs for the American Cancer Society, sponsor and host of the 2006 event. "Having a spanking new place and this sophistication helped us."
The American Cancer Society also is trying to bring the 13th World Conference on Tobacco or Health to town immediately afterward and is planning to coordinate a common, overlapping day for the events. The decision will come in early August.
In 2004, the first full year the facility will be open, 34 meetings are confirmed, occupying 451,765 rooms over the year, according to the WCTC.
"That's a very healthy number for the first year," says Mr. Ducate of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research.
The exhibition industry is valued at about $100 billion, attracting 60 million attendees each year.
But the center is not opening during a healthy time for the industry. Because of the economic slowdown and the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Ducate says, "we've seen a dip in the exhibition industry that we've never seen before."
The District may be better situated than other cities simply because it is the nation's capital.
"Most associations have a message they want to send to Washington, and there's no better place to do that than in Washington," Mr. Ducate says, adding that two-thirds of all exhibitions are owned by associations.
Groups simply outgrew the smaller, outdated convention center and likely are "anxious to come back," Mr. Ducate says. "It should be an attractive venue for them."
In June, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) will bring its annual meeting to Washington for the first time attracting 16,000 to 20,000. It is the 10th year BIO has held a convention.
"We didn't think we could fit in the old convention center," says Ray Briscuso, executive director at the D.C. group.
His group's convention usually emphasizes the region where the gathering is held, Mr. Briscuso says, including more exhibitors from the host area. To make the process fair, BIO spreads out across the country and Canada, sticking to regions where "world-class" biotech research is being done.
Mr. Briscuso says the District is an ideal location because of all of the biotechnology companies in the area, particularly along the Interstate 270 corridor, but BIO likely will not return to the city for several years.
Convention groups typically rotate among cities and plan event locations years in advance. BIO already has booked its annual convention locations through 2006 in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Industry setbacks
Washington's status as the nation's capital also may be a curse, because it is considered a prime target for terrorism one of the main reasons why business travel declined over the past year.
"We assure clients that Washington is extraordinarily safe and well prepared," Mr. Hanbury says.
Mr. Dawley says the building itself is "as safe as any public building can be."
While geopolitical risks may deter some conventions from the District, another, more concrete reason will keep more groups away.
Mr. Briscuso says his BIO convention won't return until the convention headquarters hotel is built.
The new $400 million Marriott hotel, with 1,100 to 1,500 rooms, is expected to open in mid-2007. The long-awaited decision was announced in December, but Marriott International and city officials must nail down details. The hotel will be across Ninth Street from the convention center.
"That is extremely attractive," Mr. Briscuso says.
Currently, the city has more than 27,000 hotel rooms, according to the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. The association says about 3,900 more rooms are expected to come online by 2007. Several hotels underwent massive renovations in anticipation of a new wave of business.
Mr. Dickens of Hospitality Partners expects the new convention center will stimulate more than just the hospitality industry in and around the city.
"It's going to be a tremendous catalyst of economic development," he says. "Those who come here are going to look around and see how rich the development opportunities are here."
Running with 'big dogs'
Mr. Hanbury says the new center allows Washington to compete against New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Before, the city was competing for business with smaller markets such as Charlotte, N.C., and Indianapolis.
"These days, we stack up well against our core competition," Mr. Hanbury says. "Nationally, we are up and playing with the big dogs."
The city's 730,000 square feet of new exhibition space still does not measure up to the monstrous space at centers in Chicago or Las Vegas. But the center will be able to accommodate at least 90 percent of the nation's annual convention business.
With a $2 million budget allotted for convention sales, the WCTC does not have the financial resources to compete against cities such as Geneva, Paris and London, Mr. Hanbury says.
"When you have limited resources, you have to maximize your dollars," he says. "We're not established in Europe, and that would cost a lot of time and money."
For now, the WCTC is concentrating on attracting big meetings that never would have considered the District previously because of the limited space. It's important for the city to get into the rotation for a desired convention.
"You have to keep your name in front of the meeting planners so you have top-of-mind awareness," Mr. Hanbury says. "Washington is no longer sitting back on its heels and hoping business comes to us."

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