Tourism committee continues examining Las Vegas Convention Center expansion

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

An artist’s rendering of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s planned expansion and renovation of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Plans for a $1.4 billion expansion and renovation of the Las Vegas Convention Center were vetted today by an influential committee tasked with sorting through many ambitious tourism projects.

The Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee heard about the convention center plans at a previous meeting last year, but today’s workshop offered the group a chance to probe more into the justifications and possible funding sources for the project.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority began paving the way for the expansion last year when it bought the now-shuttered Riviera for $182.5 million. Later this year, the authority plans to tear down the hotel so it can use the land for outdoor exhibit space by early 2017.

After that, the authority has plans to build a new convention facility on the site and renovate its existing convention center across the street on Paradise Road. That’s where the infrastructure committee comes in, because the authority still needs to secure funding for its planned $860 million expansion and $540 million renovation.

One funding option is to use hotel room tax revenue, but the committee considered other ideas today, too.

For example, the authority says it could save about $5 million per year by giving up operation of Cashman Center, which it runs at a loss. The savings could be used to help fund the convention center project.

Additionally, MGM Resorts International President Bill Hornbuckle, a member of the infrastructure committee, encouraged the authority to take a close look at its budget and identify areas where it could save money to help fund the convention center work.

While room taxes still account for about 80 percent of the authority’s annual operating revenues, the share of county room tax revenue dedicated to tourism has “gradually declined” over the years, according to material provided to the infrastructure committee. In addition to supporting tourism promotion, much of the room tax revenue also goes to education.

In that vein, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, another member of the committee, expressed frustration today with what she perceived to be a lack of accountability about exactly how the room tax dollars for education are being spent.

The authority says its convention center project is necessary to meet demand from trade shows for more space and keep Las Vegas competitive with other markets. But the plans haven’t been met with universal acceptance from the casino industry.

Las Vegas Sands Corp., which operates the Venetian, Palazzo and Sands Expo Center, has said public funds shouldn’t be used to finance the project, arguing that it would compete with the private sector.

Yet MGM Resorts International also has a substantial convention business, particularly at Mandalay Bay, and it has been a strong supporter of the authority’s plans. Hornbuckle said today that even if tweaks to the plans are needed, MGM Resorts is “highly supportive” and that they should move forward in some fashion.

It’s not clear yet what the infrastructure committee will recommend for the convention center when it submits a report to Gov. Brian Sandoval this summer.

The group has several other proposals to consider, including a Las Vegas Sands-backed plan to build a 65,000-seat stadium. That project is set to come before the committee next month.