The Tucson Convention Center and its surrounding campus is getting another sweeping round of upgrades, which officials said should be completed in two years and make the complex Tucson’s own “Lincoln Center.”
The Rio Nuevo Board of Directors unanimously approved a $65 million improvement plan earlier this month that includes upgrades to the Tucson Music Hall, the Leo Rich Theater and the Eckbo Plaza and Fountain.
Some of the renovations, including a full replacement of the Tucson Arena ice floor and ice plant ($3.2 million) and a 300-plus-space parking garage ($5.2 million), are already underway.
The renovation plan includes $14.7 million in convention center upgrades; a $9.2 million meeting room expansion; and $26.9 million in entertainment priorities, including a second parking structure and new seating and production upgrades at the music hall.
“We really hope, and I think some people now believe us, that the TCC complex could become our Lincoln Center — great entertainment venues, adequate space, parking, hotels now popping up all around,” Rio Nuevo board chair Fletcher McCusker said Friday.
This isn’t the first set of renovations at the complex. The board approved $3.7 million in upgrades to the arena in 2016 in preparation for the first season of the American Hockey League’s Tucson Roadrunners.
That came after several million dollars worth of upgrades to the whole complex — including plumbing and air conditioning repairs, elevator and escalator improvements, and more upgrades in the arena — in previous years.
After that legislature, McCusker said the board prioritized the upgrades to the convention center complex. They spent six months meeting with management and tenants, including the Roadrunners, Tucson Sugar Skulls of the Indoor Football League, representatives from the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase, and concert promoters.
The future projects will be funded with a $65 million from BBVA bank, which is refinancing the city’s old bond debt. The project will be paid off over 20 years, but McCusker is optimistic, based on an economic analysis of the upgrades, that predicted the renovations will increase sales revenue at the TCC complex.
The plan was approved at an Aug. 13 special meeting.
McCusker said the renovations are important because “it’s the only shot we’re going to have to have any kind of convention business, to have any kinds of sports facility” in downtown. Previous efforts to build another downtown arena were nixed because of costs.
“We’re kind of stuck with the one we got, so let’s make it … a desirable place to go,” McCusker said, adding that the improvements “should pay dividends well into the future.”
The Tucson Convention Center hosted more than 550,000 attendees at 436 events last year, including sporting events, concerts and conventions, officials said. There are no projections of what those numbers could reach post-renovations, but the planned improvements could increase convention revenue by “100 percent,” Rio Nuevo previously said in a news release.
The center hosts about half-a-dozen true conventions a year, with upward of 150,000 attendees, according to Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson, the city’s tourism wing.
DeRaad said the renovations, as well as the city inching toward its goal of having 1,500 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center, will definitely attract more business.
“If everything can get done here in the next 18-to-24 months, we’d be really excited about our prospects of bringing in more conventions,” said DeRaad, who added that there has already been an uptick in interest from smaller conventions since the renovations were announced.
“This really does provide a facility that all of us in Tucson can really be proud of,” DeRaad said.
Rio Nuevo is currently soliciting bids for a contractor, and McCusker said the group will announce more details on the bid process at a meeting Tuesday.