March 7, 2014 Updated: March 7, 2014 at 8:45 pm
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A proposal that would increase Salt Lake City's hotel space — making more room for outdoor gear shows, conferences and the crowds they bring — is advancing in the state Legislature.
A Senate committee voted unanimously Friday to approve the measure, which aims to draw a developer to build a downtown Salt Lake City mega-hotel by offering tax rebates. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
"Yahoo for us," said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. "This is going to be an economic boon in many folds for us."
Backers, including Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, said the measure would increase tourism revenue and keep the state from losing regular expos and conferences. But critics contend it's a waste of state money to give incentives for development that would move forward even without government intervention.
At most, the proposal would set aside $75 million in public money to draw private developers to build a hotel with up to 1,000 rooms.
Salt Lake City now hosts the world's largest outdoor-gear trade show twice a year. It's scheduled to continue to host the event, which routinely draws in 20,000 people, through 2016.
But without more hotel space, organizers have warned, the show will need to set up elsewhere.
The city has lost out on 20 conventions because organizers said current hotel space is inadequate, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Friday.
The new hotel, which under the legislation is required to go up within 1,000 feet of the Salt Palace Convention Center, would need to hit certain tourism revenue benchmarks in order to qualify for tax rebates under the measure from Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.
Private money would pay to build the hotel, which must have at least 500,000 square feet available for conventions. The state would only reimburse the builder for the cost of putting up public spaces, including parking and convention rooms.
On Friday, Jeremy Keele of McAdams' office praised the bill on the mayor's behalf. The hotel could cost about $335 million, McAdams has said.
Last year, lawmakers killed a similar proposal in the final moments of the session. This year's bill has the support of House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. Lockhart said in February that she backs the 2014 measure because it offers discounts to convention visitors on subsequent trips to Utah, which helps the entire state and not just Salt Lake City.
On Friday, Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, criticized the bill, saying it subsidizes tourism that would occur even without government help. "It is just inappropriate to provide subsidies" for hotels already receiving plenty of visitors, Van Tassell said.
Critics earlier said they feared the new hotel would usurp business from existing hotels. The group included Jordan Garn, the executive director of the Utah Hotel & Lodging Association.
But lawmakers have since proposed that at least $2.1 million go to other hotels to help them cope with empty rooms after the new one goes up. Garn spoke in favor of the measure Friday.
The added marketing piece also won support from Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City. The measure would bring Salt Lake City on par with other major cities, she said.
"We are clearly on the cusp of becoming in the big leagues," Jones said.
HB 356: http://1.usa.gov/1lGpAGw