Judge gives final approval for $520M Convention Center expansion project

Plan to go to state Coastal Commission

SAN DIEGO - A San Diego Superior Court judge gave his final blessing Thursday to the city of San Diego's plan to finance an upcoming $520 million expansion of the downtown convention center.

Judge Ronald Prager upheld his tentative ruling, issued Monday, that says a special district formed for hotel land owners to tax themselves was "properly formed." The judge listened to about two hours of oral arguments Wednesday from lawyers who support and oppose the funding mechanism.

The go-ahead is one of the last hurdles the city needs to clear before the start of construction. The expansion plan still needs to go before the California Coastal Commission.

Once construction begins, work should take about 33 months, according to the city.

"I welcomed this decision. It was well-reasoned and based upon the law," City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said. "Should convention center opponents choose to appeal, we are confident the decision will be upheld."

Hotels in downtown San Diego, which would benefit the most from a larger meeting facility, will charge themselves 3 percent of their room rates to help pay off debt service from construction bonds. Hotels in Mission Valley and Mission Bay will be assessed 2 percent. Outlying hotels will pay 1 percent.

The levy is expected to raise about $30 million a year. The city plans to kick in $3.5 million annually, and the Port of San Diego will add $3 million a year.

The city filed the validation lawsuit to seek clarity in what was an untested area of the law.

A group called San Diegans for Open Government and civic activist Mel Shapiro opposed the funding plan, calling it a tax that required a public election. The plan was approved in a vote of hoteliers that was weighted toward those with the most rooms.

Prager said the hotel land owners were the appropriate voters. He rejected most of the arguments of SDOG and Shapiro during Wednesday's court hearing.

The center would grow to 2.75 million square feet of floor space, with the most contiguous floor space on the West Coast at 750,000 square feet, project manager Charles Black told the City Council last year.

The city can expect an extra 25 major trade shows per year, bringing 250,000 visitors and their wallets to San Diego, Black said.

He said the annual economic impact of expansion on the region would be $689 million, including a direct bump of $76 million in spending at restaurants and retail outlets. The city will receive an additional $13.5 million in tax revenues, he said.

Area tourism officials say organizers of the biggest trade shows have been bypassing San Diego because the local facility is not big enough. Comic-Con International, which originated in San Diego, had been courted by other cities but chose to remain when an expansion was promised.

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