When Janet Skorepa visited Toronto a couple of years ago, she had visions of bringing the American Urological Association's annual meeting – a convention with more than 17,000 attendees and economic impact believed to be in the tens of millions of dollars – to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Toronto had a number of factors working in its favour: it's an international destination that's still close to the U.S. border. And the convention centre is located right downtown, near hotels, transit and other amenities.
But Ms. Skorepa, the group's associate executive director, passed on Toronto because there was one factor the convention centre couldn't overcome: At 260,000 square feet of continuous exhibit space and 120,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space, it was too small.
"We could not fit our meeting there. It just wouldn't work," Ms. Skorepa said by phone from San Diego, where the association will kick off its 2013 annual meeting Saturday.
The issue of expanding the Toronto convention centre has arisen at city hall in recent weeks, following the release of the city manager's report on a proposed downtown casino. The debate centres on two questions: How much more convention space does Toronto really need, and is the controversial casino really the best way to fund it?
Both sides of the casino debate are readying their final push before council votes on the matter in just a few weeks.
Mayor Ford, the waterfront casino's most vocal supporter, issued an open letter on the eve of the report's release that said "Toronto currently ranks 33rd in North America for convention business" and needs to move into the top 10. He said an integrated resort with a casino and convention centre would provide that opportunity. Industry experts followed suit, saying there's no denying the need for more space. The city manager's report estimated an expanded downtown facility would bring an additional 130,000 visitors to Toronto each year, and generate an additional $392-million in direct spending.
But just how well Toronto is doing in the convention business has become a matter of debate. Councillor Adam Vaughan, a downtown politician who opposes the casino, has pointed to a 2008 report that ranked Toronto fourth in North America in convention business. Mr. Vaughan is one of several councillors who has charged the expanded convention centre was pigeonholed into the casino debate only to make a new gambling facility more palatable.
WHERE TORONTO RANKS
City manager Joe Pennachetti's report, released April 8, included a chart prepared by the firm HLT Advisory Inc. that ranked the Metro Toronto Convention Centre 33rd among North American convention facilities for continuous exhibit space, not business, as the mayor had suggested.
An expanded MTCC – with up to 600,000 square feet of continuous exhibit space, according to Mr. Pennachetti's report – would move the facility into the top 10 of the rankings, but just barely, and the city would likely fall back out of that range by the time construction was complete.
The report does not provide recent data on just how well Toronto is doing in the North American convention market compared to other cities.
HLT also prepared the 2008 report that Mr. Vaughan and other councillors have cited as proof Toronto ranks fourth. But the report does not say how large the 49 conventions held in Toronto in 2007 were, or how many were held at venues even smaller than the MTCC.
Mr. Vaughan, along with Councillor Mike Layton, has also questioned why the Direct Energy Centre was left off the chart in Mr. Pennachetti's report even though it has nearly three times the continuous exhibit space of the convention centre.
Mr. Pennachetti did not return a message seeking comment, though the report does say the Direct Energy Centre was not included because it does not have an attached hotel. But a 400-room hotel is expected to open at the site in 2015.
Lyle Hall, HLT's managing director, shed some light on the distinction: the Direct Energy Centre's location and lack of amenities means it would not be included in the list of all-in-one convention facilities, even when the hotel is built, he said.
"When we're talking about bringing conventions into these buildings that bring thousands of delegates, a hotel at Exhibition Place [with 400 rooms] is not going to make an appreciable impact."
Mike Williams, the city's general manager of economic development, said Toronto "remains a strong contender in the convention business."
"It's not like we're destitute," he said, adding that while the city is doing well there is an opportunity to improve.
Mr. Hall went one step further, saying the size of the convention centre is "crippling" the opportunity to bid on an additional 850 events.
THE CASINO CONNECTION
Oxford Properties Group unveiled their $3-billion casino pitch in October – proposing to raze three office towers, a hotel and the north building of the MTCC to create an underground convention space, a mall and new mixed-use skyscrapers 1,000 feet tall.
Oxford, which is the real estate arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, acquired the land under the convention centre's north building in 2011.
Michael Kitt, Oxford's executive vice president, said it is not lobbying for a casino, just providing an option if council approves it. But Oxford has said casino rent would help it upgrade the convention centre on a much tighter timeline, giving it a significant stake in the expansion plan.
Casino operators Caesars and Las Vegas Sands Corp. have expressed interest in the convention centre site. MGM Resorts has said it would prefer a casino resort at Exhibition Place and that it would expand convention centre space at the Direct Energy Centre.
If the casino is rejected at council this month, Mr. Kitt said Oxford will look to the city, province and federal governments to fund the expansion of the MTCC, which is owned and operated by the province. "I don't know that [they] are ready to inject a billion dollars into solving the convention centre," he said, noting the province's priority at the moment appears to be on public transit.
Vancouver's $883-million convention centre, which opened in 2009, ahead of the Winter Olympics, was funded largely by the provincial and federal governments. A Tourism Vancouver spokesman said the facility has undoubtedly been a success.
Mr. Williams said he hasn't had any discussion on how the convention centre's expansion would be funded if the casino is voted down. "It's, right now, the only way," he said.
THE SPACE WE NEED
Convention planners say regardless of how Toronto gets the space, the need is certainly there.
The expanded convention centre would feature 600,000 square feet of continuous exhibit space and 300,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space.
Ms. Skorepa, whose organization plans its conventions 8 to 10 years in advance, said she would be willing to reconsider the MTCC as a host venue if it was revamped to those dimensions.
And it's nearing critical mass for groups who are already regulars at the convention centre. Steve Virtue, a spokesman for the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, said the group is committed to keeping its annual convention there – but the added space is needed.
He noted that the association's most recent convention had a financial benefit to the city of $78-million.
Tom Tonks, general manager of the Canadian International Autoshow, said the show has been forced to use a shuttle bus to transport some attendees from one end of the MTCC to the other, due to the facility's layout.
If it were up to him, an expanded convention centre would go beyond the space that's been proposed.
"If I was King of Toronto, we'd be building a million-square-foot convention centre."