Convention center wants to expand: Complex takes first step toward big South Boston addition

Jon Chesto

The operators of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center are taking the first steps toward expanding the South Boston complex less than four years after the convention center opened its doors.

The board of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority on Friday voted to allow MCCA executive director Jim Rooney to spend up to $700,000 on a contract with a team led by Watertown architectural firm Sasaki Associates to study an expansion. Rooney said he plans to hold the first planning meeting during the next two weeks.

The progress toward an expansion comes as the MCCA reports strong revenue growth for its fiscal year that ended on June 30. Total operating revenues at the authority grew by 21 percent to $46.5 million, largely due to a steady increase in business at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

The expansion, which wouldn’t be complete for at least six years, could play a key role in allowing the MCCA to keep pace with the demand for space at the Southie complex.

The addition would be built on about 22 acres behind the convention center now home to a 1,300-space parking lot.

During the next six months, Sasaki and its subcontractors will assess the convention center’s market demand and opportunities for growth in the next 15 years. Rooney said planners will eventually come up with a recommendation for the appropriate scope of an expansion - as well as how to pay for it and balance it with the convention center’s parking needs.

The 2.1 million-square-foot complex, which opened in 2004, features nearly 520,000 square feet of exhibit space. Rooney said he envisions an expansion that would create up to 300,000 square feet in additional exhibit space.

‘‘We feel we haven’t reached our full potential and maturity yet,’’ Rooney said. ‘‘We felt it was important in 2004 and 2005 to make a good first impression so that the events that came here early - in some ways, the pioneers - came here and had a good experience.’’

Attendance rose by 78 percent in 2007 from 2006, with nearly 450,000 people attending shows at the Southie convention center in the 12 months that ended in June. Revenues rose to $23.6 million, up nearly 44 percent from $16.5 million.

The convention center’s most high-profile event of the year, the BIO International biotech convention, drew more than 22,000 people with an estimated economic impact of $31 million in May. Meanwhile, the convention center opened its doors for its first consumer gate show: The New England Boat Show drew about 54,000 people in February.

Pat Moscaritolo, CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the convention center’s success has played a key role in helping the hotel industry reach occupancy and pricing levels this year that have not been seen since 1999 and 2000.

‘‘The building is meeting and exceeding expectations,’’ Moscaritolo said. ‘‘It’s time to look at what the options are for expanding the building so we can continue to respond (to the demand in the local meetings market).’’

However, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center still operates at a loss: The center reported an operating loss of about $3.6 million in its 2007 fiscal year, compared with a $4.2 million loss in the previous year.

To some extent, the convention center has benefited from drawing trade shows such as the International Boston Seafood Show that outgrow its smaller sister facility in the Back Bay, the Hynes Convention Center.

Still, MCCA officials are working to bring the Hynes, also an annual money-loser, to a break-even point. Rooney said the authority has hired Boston brokerage Meredith & Grew to market two 10,000-square-foot retail spaces proposed for sidewalk areas on Boylston Street.

Rooney said it would likely cost $4 million to $6 million to build the stores there, but the MCCA would reap at least $1 million a year in lease revenue from retail tenants. A third 10,000-square-foot retail section is also planned for inside the building.

Jon Chesto may be reached at jchesto@ledger.com.