Santa Clara Fights to Buy Back Convention Center

By Hayley Panagakis, March 4, 2015

Board members overseeing the sale of the 302,000-sq.-ft. Santa Clara (California) Convention Center are feeling the heat from the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce and Convention-Visitors Bureau, which is fighting to buy back one of the it’s largest moneymakers.

Two years ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown passed a law that would essentially require Santa Clara CVB to cede ownership and management of Santa Clara Convention Center to an oversight board, which will decide by July 2016 whether to sell the convention center back to the city or to new owners.

Angry chants from rallying public officials and convention center workers wanting the convention property back in city hands rang throughout Santa Clara City Hall Friday as board members gathered to determine the fate of the facility. Friday’s meeting, which will continue Thursday, March 5, at 12 p.m. PST for a final budget decision, aimed to establish how the convention center will be expensed for the next six months—a short-term fix that could potentially lead into a major change in ownership.

Based on the “sell the building back” mantra that resonated at Friday’s rally, the city won’t be giving up its meetings asset without a fight.

Steve Van Dorn, 13-year president and CEO of the CVB, says the goal of Friday’s rally was to bring attention to how much of an impact the oversight board’s decision could have on the community. Van Dorn says jobs are the No. 1 concern as the oversight board has put off its decision, noting it’s shown no outward support to the city’s efforts.

“If they don’t approve [the expense budget] and it doesn’t meet what we need to operate for the six months of July through December, then we may have to lay people off,” he says.

Van Dorn, who will leave his post to become Silicon Valley/Bay Area corporate affairs manager at California Chamber of Commerce on April 1, says planners headed to the convention center shouldn’t worry about their contract agreements.

“If a new company comes in to manage the building, we’re under the assumption that those contracts will have to be assumed by that company,” he says.

Van Dorn says the biggest concern planners should have is a potential drop off in the center’s quality of service. New ownership, he says, would likely bring in its own staff and keep only a selection of the current employees. “We have quite a bit of history and experience here in our staff, and that would potentially go away,” he says, noting most of the staff members at the convention center have been there for an average of more than 15 years.

Update: Santa Clara Convention Center’s oversight board approved a $3.2 million budget to cover operations from July 1-Dec. 31. The city, however, did not receive continued ownership of the convention center. Effective April 17, ownership of the building will be transferred to a successor agency.

Photo credit: Playground Pictures

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