What Will Happen To The Phoenix Convention Center South Building?

By Christina Estes
Published: Thursday, August 22, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, August 22, 2019 - 8:32am

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entrance to south ballroom
Christina Estes/KJZZ
While national conventions and large trade shows use the North and West Halls, the South Hall mostly hosts local events.

A prime piece of real estate in downtown Phoenix is under the microscope. City leaders are exploring what to do with the South Building of the Convention Center. Meetings to gather public input have been taking place over the summer, and public tours were held Wednesday.

The South Building is right across from Chase Field; it stretches from Washington to Jefferson Streets, Third Street to Fifth Street. Economic Development Director Chris Mackay calls it a megablock.

tour standing around
Christina Estes/KJZZ
A tour group visits the loading dock of South Building on Aug. 21, 2019.

“This is a 9-acre site and the standard city block is just about 2 acres, so it’s a number of city blocks that’s under roof in one building,” she said.

More than a decade ago, Phoenix added two convention buildings as part of a $600 million expansion. The plan also called for a link between the new North Building and the South Building under Washington Street. But that never happened. Now, thanks to light rail and a permanent underground shoring wall, it almost certainly never will.

People who work in the tourism industry and people who work for developers are among those checking out the 143,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space.

Sales manager Susan Watson pointed out a 6,000-square-foot full production stage. “Directly behind the stage is dressing rooms, VIP rooms, and we have a full kitchen," Watson said. 

The south ballroom also features sports history. Convention Center Deputy Director Jerry Harper said it’s where Major League Baseball held its 1997 expansion draft to fill the Arizona Diamondbacks first roster.

“They had tables set up classroom style up by the stage and the general managers were there with their phones, and this is where they actually made the phone calls on which players they were drafting on the team’s first year," he said.

Local connections to the South Building remain strong. It’s where the Salvation Army has served thousands of Christmas dinners, where Rock ‘n’ roll Marathon runners and volunteers gather before race day, and where crowds check out wedding vendors at the annual Arizona Bridal Expo. Nearly 90 events — most of them local — keep the South Building busy more than 200 days a year.

“It needs to stay here like it is and be meeting space,” said Jill Philippe, while taking a tour.

Philippe and Phyllis Hall want the South Building to stay. As event managers, it’s their job to find good places for companies and groups to meet. They know developers are knocking on the city’s door and some would like to knock down the South Building.

stairs leading to building
Christina Estes/ KJZZ
Unlike the newer North and West Halls which have ground level entrances, visitors to the South Hall must use stairs or a ramp to reach the entrance.

“It might sound very appealing to have a lot of money upfront, but in the long term I think we’d be looking at losing a lot of money because large conventions would go elsewhere,” Philippe said.

“Or at least, if they decide to develop it to keep it, make it multiuse so it stays convention center on the ground floor and they can build up and do something else above it,” Hall said.

That’s one option Chris Mackay has been hearing at community meetings as the city considers selling the site, renovating it or coming up with a public-private partnership deal.

“I would say if it’s one thing I’ve heard the most is it’s creating more open space and more green space downtown as kind of little pocket parks and respite for people when they’re in downtown,” she said.

In addition to input from residents and convention customers, the City Council will rely on a market study that will analyze current and future convention and hotel business. The idea, Mackay said, is to provide enough information for leaders to make a decision that’s in the city’s best interest in the long term.

Staff is expected to update the council on the public meetings in September, and the market report could be completed in late October.

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