Hope rises for Convention Center expansion

Earlier this week, Gov. Rendell warned that if costs kept growing, he might pull the plug on the Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion, leaving two rubble-strewn Center City blocks standing vacant, perhaps for years.

That looks a little less likely today.

A bid of just under $294.5 million for the major construction package on the center yesterday left officials cautiously optimistic that they can afford the ambitious project.

Convention Center board chairman Thomas "Buck" Riley said yesterday that it "would appear" that the bid will bring the project in under the $790 million price tag that Rendell set as a threshold beyond which the expansion might not be affordable.

"It's not a done deal yet," Riley cautioned, noting that the bid has to be analyzed carefully to ensure that it meets all the specifications. The authority has 60 days to accept the bid, but Riley said that officials hope to act before then.

Rendell said yesterday that the bid looked good at first glance, but added that "we won't know for sure until we really get a chance to get into those [bids] and examine them."

Two bids opened yesterday were for the largest construction package in the expansion project.

The low bid came from a joint venture of Daniel Keating Co. and Keating Building Construction. Their rival, a joint venture of Walsh Construction of Chicago and Buckley & Co. of Philadelphia, submitted a bid of just under $323 million.

The project costs were originally pegged at $700 million, to be funded from state gambling revenues. But delays and rising construction costs have driven up the price tag, and Rendell said that he couldn't justify continuing the project if its cost rose above $790 million.

It's unclear where the $294 million bid leaves the project's overall finances, because Convention Center officials have declined to disclose what they've budgeted for design, construction management, insurance or legal costs, or what they've spent in those categories so far.

The authority budgeted $225 million for land acquisition and demolition, and a bid for the construction of the steel superstructure and concrete was awarded earlier this year at $154.89 million.

One source familiar with the project said that if the Keating proposal survives scrutiny and is awarded as bid, the total costs should be "in the $775 million range."

Officials plan to increase the city's hotel tax from its 14 percent to 15.5 percent to fund the increased costs, but that will require approval of City Council.

Rendell said that the state would limit its contribution to the original $700 million.

"I can tell you, there's no chance, even with me, a Philadelphian as governor, there's no chance that we'll get any additional money out of the state," Rendell said.

Mayor Nutter has repeatedly pledged that the project will be completed. *

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this story.