House Passes Convention Hotel Bill

The Salt Palace Convention Center
The Salt Palace Convention Center

After nearly two years of lobbying and interim meetings, Salt Lake County appears to finally have the backing of the Utah Legislature to build a convention center hotel near the Salt Palace Convention Center.

On Tuesday, HB 356 passed the full House by a vote of 53 to 21. If the bill passes the Senate as well, it will provide $75 million in tax rebates for the funding and development of select projects surrounding the Convention Center project.

The convention hotel, with its estimated 1000 rooms and 100,000 sq feet of meeting space, was first proposed last year, but conservative groups attacked it for concentrating tourism dollars on Salt Lake City (instead of the entire state). The attacks were successful, and the bill died.

This year, the bill’s sponsor Representative Brad Wilson (Republican – Kaysville) and supporters lobbied hard in the months leading up to the session. And big names like former Senator and current Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams were called in to negotiate and explain explain to lawmakers how the bill would be funded and increase tourism traffic and consumer spending across the entire state.

Wilson says that without an additional development plan for a convention hotel, the state’s initial convention center investment would be deemed fiscally irresponsible. “We lack adequate convention space to hold these big shows, and we lack a hotel attached to that additional convention space. We’re just not quite big enough at the Salt Palace.” Speaking at a press availability with House Speaker Becky Lockhart (Republican – Provo), Wilson said the bill indirectly incentives businesses who participate in Utah conventions to permanently relocate here, citing several business owners within the Outdoor Retail industry who have already moved their commercial enterprises to the Beehive State. Several of the major conventions in Utah, which provide millions of dollars for the local economy, have warned the state that if adequate space (including both convention space and hotels for convention-goers to stay in) is not available, they would seriously consider taking their conventions elsewhere.

Rural members of the House were concerned that the bill provided benefits to only the Wasatch Front, but many members changed their vote when the concept of a “bounce back” voucher was introduced. The voucher gives patrons of the hotel a discount on a future trip to back to Utah, on the condition they use it at another hotel. Representative Dixon Pitcher (Republican – Ogden) called the hotel a “no fail hotel,” noting that the new hotel facility would drain from the existing pool of hotels in Salt Lake County. Pitcher, who seemed reluctant to support the bill, felt that even with the “bounce back” voucher, rural Utah would not receive their fair share of the revenue. As a hotel owner himself, Pitcher said that what made him change his mind about was a “mitigation fund” for the hotels in the surrounding area that would lose out in revenue over a four year period. “Unbelievably, Salt Lake County did the right thing.”

Other rural members of the House seemed to be persuaded by testimony from Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – Millcreek), who has ownership in the Boulder Mountain Lodge near Capitol Reef in Southern Utah. Arent says the lodge sees increased traffic when major conventions are held in Salt Lake City, as many convention-goers travel to Southern Utah to see the sights after their business in SLC concludes.

The bill moves on to the Senate for its consideration.

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