Convention board hires consultant to explore privatizing

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The Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The board of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority has awarded a consulting-services contract to Public Financial Management Inc., of Philadelphia, to assist in reviewing responses to privatize certain functions of the center.

The 15-member board, at a meeting Wednesday, voted unanimously to approve the contract.

"The board felt that it was important to bring in an independent consultant to assist us in the process of reviewing and evaluating the responses we have received, as well as analyzing our options going forward," board chairman Gregory J. Fox said just before the vote. "We wanted an outside organization that could provide us with a fresh look and a different perspective."

The board voted Aug. 15 to examine other options for operating the center, whose $786 million expansion was completed in March 2011. It issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) from companies that provide services specializing in the convention business, including those that handle facility operations, maintenance, and management.

Among the specialties the board said it was seeking expertise in were "substantial urban convention-center maintenance and operation experience," "advanced knowledge of convention-center facility maintenance, repair, construction," and "effective marketing and event management ... including the ability to generate more events and higher revenue."

Fox said the board had received responses from five such companies.

PFM will act as a facilitator, he said, and assist the board in reviewing the submissions and determining whether the bidders are qualified, and consult on whether to proceed with a request for proposals (RFP).

"The purpose of the RFQ was to gather information from the marketplace regarding best practices," said Fox. "Now that we have that information, we look forward to working with PFM to conduct a thorough review of the responses."

Fox said PFM would report to the full board on whether to issue an RFP for operational management.

Board member Heather Steinmiller, although she voted in favor of hiring PFM, again raised questions about the legality of the move and the potential impact on tax-exempt state bonds used to finance the center. Steinmiller was one of three board members who voted against the RFQ in August.

"I don't want to waste taxpayer money going through the process until lawyers determine we can actively go to privatization and not jeopardize the bonds," she said. "Since already 85 percent of the work at the center is privatized, the real issue is to fix the show floor."

Ahmeenah Young, chief executive officer of the authority, who has been criticized for mismanagement by labor unions that work on events at the center, said she was supportive of exploring privatization.

The board's move to review privatization options comes seven months before the June 30 expiration of a controversial 10-year customer-service agreement between the authority and the city's unions.

"I think it's essential that the board utilize every possible avenue to explore maximizing efficiencies in this building," Young said Wednesday. "I think we ought to be open to . . . and be willing to incorporate anything that helps us to be the best convention center in the country."

PFM is known for its work in municipal and state government.

"Based on their prior experience," Fox said, "they can help us explore the different options that are available and what will make sense for us and not make sense, and whether to issue an RFP is in the center's best interest.

"It's not a big step, but the next step," he said. "The board believes it has a fiduciary duty to explore all options concerning the activities of the Convention Center and how to best serve our customers."

 


Contact Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2855 or sparmley@phillynews.com.