New convention center reintroduces Cleveland to the convention business

CLEVELAND - The new $465 million Cleveland Convention Center and Global Center of Health Innovation does something the old convention center couldn't: Put Cleveland back in the convention business.

"Our convention center was built in different pieces, mostly in the 20s and 30s," said Positively Cleveland President and CEO Dave Gilbert of the old facility under Cleveland's downtown malls. "It had very low ceilings, too many columns. It was a little old. It was a little dingy and so we had very few customers who would really look at Cleveland."

The opening of the new 750,000 square foot facility, with its quarter million square foot exhibit hall, changes that, bringing in conventions and people that have never been to Cleveland before.

"These are people that can be future residents, do future business here so we want them not only to spend their money but to really sample our products, sample the community," Gilbert said.

Though the project is impressive, Gilbert said for northeast Ohio it's just the beginning.

"Having the convention center is important, but there's still a lot of work for the community to do, a lot of work to make sure that we look, act and feel like a visitor destination," he said.

"The last thing we can afford to do now is pat ourselves on the back and say 'Boy wasn't that great, we built this thing.' Now we actually have to work twice as hard because we need to know that three, five, 10 years down the road, we're maximizing the impact of that building."

Three years down the road, 2016, could potentially end up being the biggest test as the Republican and Democratic parties look for sites to host their political conventions. Cleveland was a finalist in 2006 to host the 2008 Republican National Convention, without the amenities the city has now.

"While we were close before, not having the proper convention center and not having a convention center hotel, which now was recently announced that's going to happen, that really elevates from a facility standpoint our ability to host a national convention," Gilbert said.

Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald announced last week that the county was moving forward with plans to build a 650-room convention center hotel on the site of the current county administration building. That hotel is projected to open in 2016.

Quicken Loans Arena would still be the convention site, but the Cleveland Convention Center is needed to house the media and other support operations.

"Right now, it hasn't been decided whether or not Cleveland will go after (either convention) but I think there's a lot of talk with different leaders in in the community. I think there is a feeling that we very well may try to make a push to host one of those conventions in '16," Gilbert said.

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