House speaker backs convention center hotel
Utah House speaker is swayed by funding provision for state tourism promotion.
Published: February 5, 2014 08:29PM
Updated: February 5, 2014 10:55PM
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Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams gathers some business and community leaders around him to show growing support for a convention center hotel in downtown SLC during a press conference at City Creek Center on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Also pictured are Lane Beattie with the Salt Lake Chamber and House Speaker Becky Lockhart.

After a bill to fund a convention center hotel in downtown Salt Lake City fell just short of legislative approval last session, House Speaker Becky Lockhart challenged Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to devise a megahotel plan that helps the whole state, not just the capital city.

He apparently has.

Lockhart joined other legislative, business and community leaders Wednesday in endorsing a soon-to-appear bill that will lend state financial aid to the privately led development of a headquarters hotel adjacent to the Salt Palace Convention Center.

“I’m honored to lend my support to this visionary venture,” said the Provo Republican in a news conference from the Sky Bridge linking City Creek Center’s shops east and west of Main Street.

She voted against the measure last session, when it fell three votes short of passage on the session’s final night

What secured Lockhart’s backing now is a provision — in a bill that will be introduced later this week — that sets aside funding for promotional materials that can be distributed in advance to people attending conventions in Salt Lake City, encouraging them to lengthen their trips and visit other Utah attractions.

As an example, an “Experience Utah” video produced by the Utah League of Cities & Towns was shown, touting all that the state has to offer.

“This shows the never-ending ways to explore Utah,” Lockhart said, calling the tourism-generating connection to convention-center funding “an agenda for action.”

Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the bill will be unveiled in the House later this week and that Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, will be its Senate sponsor.

As last year, this new version envisions joint contributions by the state, Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City to the construction of public-meeting facilities within a privately financed hotel of 800 to 1,200 rooms. Its total cost is projected at $335 million.

Wilson said the new bill puts a $75 million cap on the public investment — $25 million by each government — and specifies the hotel itself will be funded privately, with the developer qualifying for tax rebates once the hotel is generating new revenues.

About 5 percent of the revenue that could go toward those rebates will be diverted to the tourism-promotion effort, McAdams added.

That initiative should alleviate the concerns of rural lawmakers, he said, insisting again Wednesday that a megahotel will not hurt existing downtown hotels — as claimed by the Utah Taxpayers Association and Sinclair Oil, owner of the Grand America and Little America hotels.

McAdams contends the headquarters hotel will enable Visit Salt Lake to book more conventions at the Salt Palace, compensating existing hoteliers for business lost in competition to the megahotel.

Jordan Garn, executive director of the Utah Hotel & Lodging Association, said his member hotels — including Sinclair’s — don’t think that will be the case.

Their impact study (with the taxpayers association) indicates that in the first five years of the megahotel’s operation, existing hotels will lose out on $105 million to the owner of the government-subsidized, 1,000-room hotel.

“We are working tirelessly to see how are concerns can be mitigated,” Garn said. “We’re disappointed the speaker has decided to support the measure without some sort of mitigation element to it that appreciates the positive impact our hotels have had on the community.”

But other downtown business interests back the idea.

Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie said the funding formula is sound because the incentives offered to attract a hotel builder are similar to what the Governor’s Office of Economic Development provides to other businesses courted by the state.

“The legislation is consistent with strategies supported by our business community,” he said.

Linda Wardell, general manager of City Creek Center, said the proposed hotel would benefit her mall and its stores significantly. Studies show, she added, that shopping is the prime leisure activity of conventioneers, who spend four times more than regular shoppers.

Each big convention attracts thousands of visitors, Wardell said, people “who will return home as evangelists for City Creek Center and other parts of Utah.”

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg