Special Report: Is Javits Growing?

December 3, 2002, 12:00 AM EST

New Yorkers like to argue their city is home to the biggest and best of everything—theater, restaurants, museums—but when it comes to venues big enough to host large conventions and conferences, the Big Apple loses its bragging rights. The Jacob K. Javits Center, the city's main meeting and convention space, ranks 18th in the country in terms of exhibit space. Changing that has become a priority for leaders of the city's meetings, convention, hotel and tourism industries, as well as Javits executives and city and state officials, but the web of involved parties is still figuring out how to get an expansion to happen.

Opened in 1986, the Javits Center looks impressive from the outside: Stretching along Eleventh Avenue from 34th Street to 39th Street, it hosts an average of 140 events a year, and boasts 814,000 square feet of exhibit space on three floors in two different halls. But compare that to Chicago's McCormick Place—the nation's leader—with a whopping 2.2 million square feet.

And size matters: According to NYC & Company, in 2000 the city lost 13 future meetings and conventions at the Javits Center due to lack of space, costing the city 240,000 lost hotel room nights and an estimated $64.9 million in attendee spending. In fact, 63 events—ranging from the American Academy of Ophthalmology's Annual Meeting to the World Sports Expo—are too big for Javits.

“New York doesn't have the visibility that places like Chicago, Orlando and Vegas have. They're doing very well at what could be New York's expense, if we could accommodate larger shows,” says Jeff Little, president of trade show firm George Little Management, the most frequent user of the Javits Center. “We have shows that don't fit in the Javits Center, and continue to have long waiting lists for shows [that do], like the International Gift Fair. Many exhibitors who want to get in would be great additions to the show, and we can't accommodate them [because of limited space].”

Such losses are costly, considering the city's weak economic status and the size of the $82 billion meetings and convention industry. “If New York City expects to grow financially it has to expand the Javits Center,” says Cristyne L. Nicholas, president and CEO of NYC & Company. “Travel and tourism is one of the few industries in which we can forecast growth. With an expansion of Javits Center, it's a buffer against any future recession or economic downturn, because business is booked two to 10 years in advance.”

Most involved parties agree that the state-owned Javits Center should expand; they're just not sure how to do it.

“There's no go-ahead because there hasn't been the confluence of agreement among city and state officials and the industry as to how to get from the desire to the finished project,” says Mike Eisgrau, Javits' director of public affairs.

Javits officials want the center to expand north toward 42nd Street, in order to offer show managers one large, continuous space. Javits has already purchased blocks on 39th and 40th Streets, between 11th and 12th Avenues, with such an expansion in mind.

But another proposal is to use land south of Javits for a new stadium for the Jets, which would create more exhibit space—and scheduling difficulties. You can't book a trade show five years in advance, and then cancel it if the Jets make the playoffs that year and need to use the venue. Javits execs won't comment on that plan, but NYC & Company's Nicholas says, “We're focusing on the northern expansion.”

One possible deterrent in breaking ground anytime soon is the need to rebuild lower Manhattan, which will draw on state and city funding.

Still, the aftershocks of September 11 might just work in favor of a bigger Javits Center. “The community now understands the value of tourism, which they didn't before 9/11,” Nicholas says. “When the city experienced occupancy rates of 30 percent, that was a wake up call.”

So while everyone seems to agree that the expansion should happen; now they need to agree on how to do it—and who should be in charge. As Nicholas says, “There's a lot of work to be done before a shovel gets put in the ground.”

Erika Rasmusson

This story originally appeared in the winter 2002 issue of the BiZBash Event Style Reporter newspaper.

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