TAMPA — Nearly 25 years after it opened, the Tampa Convention Center is getting a make-over.
The Tampa City Council this week approved the first installment of what is projected to be more than $14.6 million in improvements to the sprawling waterfront center downtown. The $463,250 approved on Thursday will replace two of the center’s 10 escalators.
Another installment will be released in a few months to replace two more.
Over the next four years, the city will replace the rest of the escalators and the center’s two elevators, remodel the bathrooms, improve utilities at the center’s boat docks, replace doors and add an electronic key card system to the building.
The changes aren’t sexy, but they’re necessary, said Rick Hamilton, who oversees the city-owned convention center.
“It’s pretty much a renovation of the entire facility,” Hamilton said. “For lack of a better word, we need to make it aesthetically pleasing.”
The renovations will modernize the building, which opened in 1990, and help Tampa compete with the rest of Florida’s major cities for convention business. Tampa also competes with centers in Atlanta, Nashville, Louisville, Ky., and Charlotte, N.C., for meeting business.
“As new centers are built or remodeled around the country it’s critical for us to refresh what we have to offer,” said Santiago Corrada, head of Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County’s lead tourism agency.
For an example of how to bring an aging building into the 21st Century, Hamilton looks across town to Tampa International Airport. The 43-year-old airport did its own $20 million makeover in 2012, adding video screens, faster wireless Internet service and — Hamilton’s favorite — nicer bathrooms.
Modern bathrooms are more important than people might think, said Deborah Beiter, a professor of tourism at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida.
“If they look old and worn out, people perceive them as dirty,” Beiter said. And as in a hotel or restaurant, even the perception of a dirty bathroom can kill repeat business, she said.
The convention center renovations are financed by Hillsborough County’s tourist development tax, a 5 percent levy on hotel and motel stays. The county’s Tourism Development Council passes the funds to the city to spend.
The tourist development tax has generated $13.4 million so far this year, according to monthly reports filed by the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s Office. That’s up $1.3 million from the same period last year.
A more inviting convention center will bring more business, put more people in hotel rooms and lift hotel tax revenue, Beiter said.
“Because Tampa is a desirable location, to upgrade the convention center will probably give them a leg up,” she said.
The 2012 Republican National Convention gave Tampa a jump-start on upgrading its convention center. In the months leading up to the RNC, Bright House Networks, Sprint, Verizon and AT&T installed more than $40 million in new fiber-optic cable, cellphone systems and wi-fi technology. All of it remains in the building.
The nuts-and-bolts improvements are just part of Hamilton’s effort to improve the convention center.
From the floor-to-ceiling window in his office, Hamilton looks east toward Channelside Bay Plaza. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has a pending bid of $7.1 million to buy the foundering center out of bankruptcy, though the bid is now under challenge.
Vinik also plans to add a new hotel a stone’s throw from the convention center.
“That’s huge for us,” Hamilton said.