The Erie County Convention Center Authority (Authority) operates four public assembly facilities in Erie. They include the Erie Insurance Arena, Warner Theatre, UPMC Ballpark and the Bayfront Convention Center (BCC). Additionally, the Authority owns two hotels, the 200 room Erie Sheraton Bayfront Hotel which opened in 2008 and the 192 room Courtyard Bayfront Hotel which opened in 2016. Both hotels are physically integrated with the 155,000 SF Bayfront Convention Center. The properties are located at the water’s edge of Erie’s magnificent Presque Isle Bay.
Like other downtowns in cities similar to Erie, Erie's downtown had suffered tremendously from the onset of the shopping mall phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s. One obvious element to the revitalization of Erie's downtown was to link the downtown to Presque Isle Bay through commercial development. Unlike most downtowns, Erie had a tremendous natural resource at its northern perimeter which could serve as a catalyst for development and growth.
However, Erie's Bayfront in the 1980s reflected its industrial past rather than a 21st century future. It was dominated by a coal fired electric power plant, an ancient shingle factory, railroad yards, and rusted out hulks of long closed industries.
The cost of cleaning up and reclaiming the Bayfront was enormous, and made purely private development prohibitively expensive. Direct government intervention was necessary if the Bayfront were ever to achieve its potential.
Public Sector Investments
Steps were taken to accomplish this vision. The Erie Western Pennsylvania Port Authority began to acquire and clean up Bayfront properties. The Commonwealth built the Bayfront Parkway, providing vehicular access along the entire length of the Bayfront. The Commonwealth reclaimed the power plant and converted it into the Bayfront Maritime Museum, housing the Brig Niagara. The County of Erie moved the public library to the Bayfront and integrated it with the Maritime Museum. The Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority built an Intermodal Center adjacent to the Museum-Library complex.
A feasibility study was undertaken in 1999 to explore the possibility of building a convention center on the Bayfront. The report concluded that the Bayfront provided a unique location for a convention center and would create an excellent opportunity to revitalize downtown Erie and the Bayfront, to redevelop former industrial sites, to create off-season visitor activity and to attract new events, new spending and new investment to Northwest Pennsylvania. The report emphasized the need for a first-rate full-service hotel with a sufficient number of rooms to service activities at the convention center. The report further recognized that funding to build the convention center was not available from local sources, and recommended seeking a "Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project" or "RACP" grant from the Commonwealth to fund the building of the convention center.
In accordance with the recommendations of the report, the Authority was created in 2000 under the Third-Class County Convention Center Authority Act pursuant to the enactment of City and County Ordinances
In 2001, the Commonwealth approved a $32 million RACP grant for the convention center project.
The Authority and a local hotel developer then negotiated a development agreement whereby the Authority would build a convention center and the developer would build a privately owned and operated hotel. The development agreement ultimately failed when the private developer withdrew from the project. One of the primary reasons for that failure was the developer’s reduction in the number of rooms in the hotel to a level that would have been woefully insufficient to support the convention center.
In 2003, the Authority redoubled its efforts to find a private hotel developer which would build a host hotel that was of a size and quality necessary to make the convention center a success. Notwithstanding a good faith effort to privatize the hotel component for the convention center, an RFP process did not yield any interested private hotel developers who were willing to build a hotel of a size and quality necessary for the success of the convention center. It became evident that it was not good public policy to wait for something that was not going to happen and jeopardize the Bayfront development that would easily approach $100 million. Given the lack of response to the Authority's efforts to find a private hotel developer, the Authority's consultants recommended that the Authority build and own the hotel itself. After much public deliberation, the Authority decided to build its own hotel. The Authority proceeded to secure a $48 million bond issue to build the hotel. That bond issue served as a necessary match to the $44 million State RACP Grant (increased from the previously approved amount of $32 million). A new waterfront site was selected and the Erie Sheraton Bayfront Hotel opened in 2008,shortly after the Bayfront Convention Center was completed.
The Bayfront Convention Center and the Sheraton Bayfront Hotel proved to be hugely successful and, in fact, the hotel was ranked in the top ten Sheraton Hotels in North America. After several years of operation, it was found that the primary constraint on maximizing the full potential of the Bayfront Convention Center was the need for more host hotel rooms. After careful study and following the advice of consultants, the Authority determined that it was necessary to build another hotel. A site was selected on property recently acquired and remediated by the Authority, which was a former brownfield adjacent to the Bayfront Convention Center. The Courtyard Bayfront Hotel project was financed by $35 million in tax exempt bonds and $25 million in State RACP Grants. The Courtyard Bayfront Hotel opened in 2016 and was immediately ranked in the top 1% of the 980 Courtyard brand hotels in North America.
It is important to emphasize that the Bayfront Convention Center, the Sheraton Bayfront Hotel, and the Courtyard Bayfront Hotel are all owned by the Authority, and the Authority is completely at risk for the financial success or failure of these three facilities. It should likewise be noted that the County of Erie has guaranteed the Authority's bond issues. Thus, the Bayfront Convention Center complex is entirely a public project for which the taxpayers of Erie County are ultimately at risk.
By any financial metric, the Bayfront Convention Center, the Bayfront Sheraton Hotel and the Courtyard Bayfront Hotel have been tremendous successes, exceeding even the most optimistic of forecasts. This financial success has enabled the Authority to undertake other projects on the Bayfront as well as to carry out major renovations of its other facilities, the Warner Theatre, Erie Insurance Arena and UPMC Ballpark. In sum, The Authority has been responsible for over $275,000,000 of investment in Erie helping to transform our downtown and bayfront creating best-in class public event facilities, waterfront parks and new public waterfront access.
Community and Economic Impact
Since 2007, the Convention Center development has been a vital catalyst behind the City of Erie’s bayfront reclamation and revitalization. The Authority, using its own funds and $10 million in RACP funding, was able to purchase and remediate a former GAF Shingle factory on property adjacent to the Convention Center development. The acquisition and remediation of the GAF property benefitted the community as a whole by eliminating an eyesore, eliminating pollution into Presque Isle Bay and converting twelve acres of contaminated waterfront property into developable land. This effort created new public access with a half mile long waterfront park and opened several acres for future development. Several new independent tax generating restaurants have opened within walking distance of the property and several multi-million-dollar development opportunities are currently being negotiated.
2018 133,686 Convention Center attendees, 36 conventions and conferences, 151 business meetings and corporate events, 109 banquets and 30 other events. $19.4 million in direct spending.
2017 143,014 Convention Center attendees, 40 conventions and conferences, 182 business meetings and corporate events, 104 banquets and 37 other events. $22.8 million in direct spending.
2016 245,306 Convention Center attendees, 32 conventions and conferences, 326 business meetings and corporate events, 107 banquets and 34 other events. $28.9 million in direct spending.
2015 150,277 Convention Center attendees, 45 conventions and conferences, 333 business meetings and corporate events, 96 banquets and 34 other events. $18.4 million in direct spending
2014 146,451 Convention Center attendees, 30 conventions and conferences, 422 business meetings and corporate events, 88 banquets and 29 other events. $16.7 million in direct spending.
The Erie County Convention Center Authority will continue to invest in Erie’s future to improve our community, enhance our bayfront, create jobs and make Erie a better place to live, work and play.