In a recent letter to the 15-member board, the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association harshly criticized the slow pace of bookings at the newly expanded Convention Center, attributing it mainly to high labor costs and less-than-pleasant experiences by large groups that gathered there last year.
The hoteliers said the center's bookings fell far short of goals for 2014 through 2016, roughly 330,000 rooms shy of the targets — the equivalent of 28 citywide conventions, with a local economic impact in excess of $400 million .
The $786 million expansion, opened in March 2011, made the Convention Center the nation's 14th largest, able to host larger trade shows or two major conventions simultaneously, or one large gate show, such as the annual Philadelphia International Flower Show, and a convention or trade show.
The hotel association has been particularly sensitive to the less-than-steller group business because the Convention Center's expansion was partly funded by a 2008 bump in the city hotel tax from 14 percent to 15.2 percent.
City Councilman Mark Squila, who serves on the authority's board, said, "The only way for our center to work is for all of us to work together as a board and a city. We have to get all our ducks in line … to make this work."
Jim Gratton, president of the hoteliers group, attending the session with executive director Ed Grose, said the meeting was "a good start."
"The purpose of our letter was not to create a firestorm or put people in their corners," said Gratton. "We felt the board needed to understand our concerns.
“We have a vested interest, probably more so than anyone else in this room, that the Convention Center be successful. While bookings look good for this year, we are looking ahead three or four years from now, not just the short term."
But the hourlong meeting was not without fireworks.
John J. Dougherty, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, whose members install electricity for Convention Center events, said that while he appreciated Fox's call for inclusion of all groups at board meetings, he was dissatisfied with how labor's concerns have been given short shrift.
He said his calls for privatizing the center and for pre-and post-convention meetings and right-to-know requests for how funds were being spent had largely been ignored by the board.
"I'm not here for a great speech," he said. "I want to be part of the resolve."
Dougherty criticized what he called wasteful spending by the board, including a rehab of upper-management offices that included a new water heater and furnishings for authority president and chief executive Ahmeenah Young.
"Can we really afford that in this economy, and when the center is projected with an operating loss of $15 million this year?" he asked
After the meeting, Young disputed Dougherty's claims, saying that her office was not being redone, and that there was no new water heater.
"What would I do with a new water heater?" Young asked. "To my knowledge, I don't have any new furniture.
“He has a right to his opinion. He may feel strongly about that, but it clearly is not true," she said.
"We're here to come up with solutions. … This building is a house of commerce. It's about jobs, jobs, jobs."
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or email@example.com.