Top L.A. official calls for private firm to run convention center
Los Angeles should turn management of the Los Angeles Convention Center over to a private firm, taking that responsibility away from city employees, the city’s top budget official said Monday.
In an 18-page report, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said such a move could save the city from $14 million to $37 million over a five-year period. He advised Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council to launch a competitive search so that a private firm could be in place starting July 1.
Anschutz Entertainment Group, currently seeking to build a new downtown football stadium, has expressed interest in recent years in running the convention center, which is located next to two key AEG assets: Staples Center and the L.A. Live entertainment complex. AEG's NFL stadium plan would involve the demolition and reconstruction of one wing of the convention center.
Santana said only 11% of the people who went to the convention center during the 2010-11 fiscal year were there for "citywide" conventions — major events that attract visitors to hotels across the region, not just downtown. Instead, many of its events were trade and consumer shows that don't require overnight stays, he said.
That would change, Santana said, if city officials hire a private manager and expand the power of the convention center's oversight board.
“Our biggest competition is Sacramento,” Santana said. “And with all due respect to Sacramento, Los Angeles is an international city and we should be competing with Chicago, New York and San Francisco.”
Santana's proposal is one element of his long-range plan for dealing with a municipal budget crisis that has left Villaraigosa and the council struggling year after year to cut costs. Taxpayers have long subsidized the convention center, which received $49.8 million last year from the general fund, which pays for police officers and firefighters, according to the report.
Santana's proposal quickly drew negative reviews from the city's labor officials. Service Employees International Union Local 721, already fighting a plan to turn the Los Angeles Zoo over to a private operator, signaled it would do the same with the convention center.
"We are against handing control of an important public asset like the convention center to a private operator," said union spokesman Lowell Goodman. "These are public assets that generate revenue for the public and it doesn't make sense to give a monopoly on the revenue to a private corporation."
Goodman said his union's contract with the city forbids it from allowing a private company to come in and lay off its members at the convention center. But the city could transfer its unionized employees from the convention center to other city agencies and then allow a private firm to hire cheaper workers as replacements, he said.
Santana also made other recommendations, calling for the city to set a goal of tripling the number of so-called citywide conventions by 2020. He also said the convention center should change its booking policy to attract more major conventions.
— David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall
Photo: Los Angeles City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana (right) listens to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa address the media about the city's budget crisis in 2010. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times