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San Diego Fights to Save Comic-Con Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention

Organizers Plan National Museum as Vote Looms on Expanding Convention Center
August 6, 2018
A rendering of the proposed Comic-Con Museum in San Diego's Balboa Park.

Comic books and fantasy are serious business for commercial real estate in San Diego.

The city's annual Comic-Con International, billed as the world's biggest convention for science fiction and superhero fans because of its 135,000 attendees, is luring city and tourism officials into the real-life equivalent of an epic battle against arch enemies in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco, which are trying to take away the event.

City leaders plan to ask voters in a ballot measure as soon as November, but most likely next year, to support a long-sought expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, geared partly toward retaining the annual four-day Comic-Con event where fans from around the world flock to get sneak peeks at upcoming TV shows, movies and video games. At stake is almost $150 million in regional economic impact from the annual four-day convention, according to the city, boosting demand for – and the value of – hotel, retail and restaurant properties in the area.

After recently wrapping up the 49th edition of Comic-Con International, operators have made moves to reinforce the event’s San Diego roots. They bought a downtown office building and are planning for a new $35 million Comic-Con museum in the city’s iconic Balboa Park.

Comic-Con International, held last month, is the largest single conference among the more than 100 events hosted annually at San Diego's waterfront convention center. Comic-Con is officially booked there through 2021 and organizers would like to stay far longer, though they have also made it known in recent years that they are running out of space and are being wooed by rival tourism officials in the other cities.

For now at least, San Diego Comic Convention, the formal name of the non-profit educational corporation that has run the event since its 1970 debut, isn’t going anywhere. It recently acquired a 29,100-square-foot office building on State Street, in downtown San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood, for $15 million in preparation for future expansion from its current downtown administrative offices on Broadway.

“As I understand it, we are in the middle of our current lease, so there are no plans to move immediately,” David Glanzer, chief communications and strategy officer for Comic-Con International, said in an email. “But it is our hope that we will be able to utilize that space for our offices sometime in the future.”

Comic-Con organizers are now looking to establish a more permanent, year-round footing in the local and national pop culture community, with plans underway for a 68,000-square-foot museum in the space at Balboa Park that formerly housed San Diego Hall of Champions, a regional sports museum.

Adam Smith, recently hired by Comic-Con to serve as the museum’s executive director, said renovations have not yet begun, as the organization first focuses on raising funds for the project. Community fundraising is expected to cover about two-thirds of the estimated $35 million project budget, with the organization providing the remaining third.

“Right now we have eight full-time staff employed on the project, and the majority of them are in fundraising roles,” said Smith, who has overseen museums in the United Kingdom and U.S. for the past two decades, most recently for an aviation museum in Dallas.

Comic-Con recently brought in as a project manager local construction management firm KCM Group, which has done work on cultural projects including some at Balboa Park. Maryland-based consulting firm Gallagher & Associates, which has worked on other well-known museums nationwide, has been tapped to help master-plan the new Comic-Con venue.

“They are helping us find the sweet spot that lies between education, entertainment, accessibility and sustainability,” Smith said. “I really like their past body of work on projects like the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., Mob Museum in Las Vegas, the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans."

He said the World War II Museum "in my professional opinion is the best all-around museum development on planet Earth in the past decade.”

Comic-Con started as a gathering for comic book enthusiasts that drew just over 300 to its first iteration in a ballroom at the U. S. Grant Hotel in San Diego, about a block from organizers’ current downtown offices. Held at the convention center for the past 25 years, it has grown to attract avid fans of all kinds of science fiction, superhero and other pop-culture genres.

Attendees now come from more than 80 countries, with festivities presented in front of a global media horde capturing news from the panels and previews.

Comic-Con admission badges, priced this year at up to $276 for four days plus a preview night, quickly sold out after going on sale three months before the event. Those not able to enter the convention center were among the thousands crowding bars and restaurants in the adjacent Gaslamp Quarter, taking in sights like costumed monsters and storm-troopers along with the mega-sized, Hollywood-funded billboards festooning the full sides of nearby hotels and retail buildings.

In addition to convention booths, several production companies each year rent empty downtown lots and commercial spaces to create temporary interactive attention-getters, like this year’s zombie-filled junkyard promoting AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and a helicopter-rescue simulation touting Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” television action series.

Local observers are anticipating that the new Comic-Con museum, as part of the larger Balboa Park with its other popular museums, historic buildings and public plazas, will also bring some steady, full-year tourism impact, supplementing the four-day economic clout of the famous convention.

According to previous estimates by consultants for the city and its tourism agency, the annual Comic-Con gathering by itself creates a total San Diego regional impact of $147.1 million, including $87.1 million in direct attendee spending. The event generates an estimated $3.3 million in hotel and sales tax revenue along with 57,700 hotel room-night bookings, though a convention center spokesperson noted this year’s room-night tally was closer to 61,000.

To help ensure the event’s long-term San Diego tenure, and also attract other similar-sized conventions, the mayor’s office, San Diego Tourism Authority and other industry leaders are supporting a proposed ballot measure that would help fund a convention center expansion along with other civic needs.

Backers recently submitted signatures to place a hotel tax increase before city voters, later this year or sometime in 2019, that would generate $6.4 billion over 42 years and address needs including homeless services, street repairs and a long-discussed 400,000-square-foot expansion of the convention center. Officials have estimated the center expansion will cost up to $685 million.

While convention center operators by law cannot formally support ballot measures, Clifford Rippetoe, who heads the entity that operates the San Diego facility, said some type of improvements will likely be needed to help the city remain competitive with venues in Los Angeles and Anaheim, its most direct rivals for convention business.

Both of those cities have major convention center expansions either recently completed or in planning, and both have a slew of new hotels in development on adjacent land.

“Both of those are going to be much stronger competitors for us,” said Rippetoe, president and chief executive of the San Diego Convention Center Corp., which operates the facility on behalf of the city.

Rippetoe said he is confident San Diego can retain Comic-Con International regardless of what happens at the ballot box. He pointed to factors including the organizers’ local history, a network of infrastructure and support businesses that have helped the event run smoothly, and other logistical complexities likely involved in changing venues.

“We have a strong chance at keeping it because of the relationship we have with the organizers, and because of the other elements that are established in the community,” Rippetoe said. “It takes a lot of things coming together beyond the convention center itself.”

Lou Hirsh, San Diego Market Reporter  CoStar Group   
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