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Pittsburgh's Convention Center Getting Busier But Still Faces Deficits

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center is getting busy again.
Katie Blackley
The David L. Lawrence Convention Center is getting busy again.

As Pittsburgh slowly makes its way out of the pandemic shutdown, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center is hosting large events again. But it’s going to take a while to get back to where it was.

Like so many other venues, especially those in the tourism and hospitality industry, the Convention Center shut down almost completely starting in mid-March of 2020.

“2020 was just a very bad year,” said general manager Tim Muldoon. “Everything just truly fell apart, and there was really no substantial revenue for the building from April through December.”

Muldoon says the revenue was down some 75% from a typical year. Workers were furloughed, but the Sports and Exhibition Authority, which owns the Center, still ended up paying out about $6.2 million in supplemental revenue to balance the Center’s books, said SEA executive director Mary Conturo. That’s more than twice what the SEA provides in a typical year, she said.

The sprawling Downtown facility overlooking the Allegheny River hosted some smaller events over the winter, said Muldoon, like weddings and corporate trainings. Large events returned in April, after state officials permitted indoor gatherings of up to 25% of a venue’s capacity. The Center hosted two youth basketball tournaments on consecutive weekends, then the annual World of Wheels show.

May so far has seen the Pittsburgh Bridal Show and the nine-day RV Show that began this past Saturday. The RV Show, which usually happens in January, agreed to change dates, Muldoon said. On May 29-31, the facility will host the East Coast Girls Junior Volleyball Championships tournament.

Gov. Wolf’s recent announcement that the state will permit indoor events at full capacity starting May 31 is another big step toward the Center returning to a full calendar, Muldoon said.

In pre-pandemic times, the Convention Center also hosted professional conferences and cultural events like Anthrocon. Many such events went virtual during the shutdown, but Muldoon said based on feedback he has received from clients, he believes the market will bounce back.

“People want to meet in person. That’s been the great thing about learning that over the last year, reinforcing that what we do has a real value,” he said. “I’m honestly looking forward to seeing some good numbers in the fall."

However, the SEA expects convention center revenues will be down again for 2021. That’s largely because annual high-revenue events that run early in the year, like the Home and Garden Show and the Car Show, were cancelled because of the pandemic, said Conturo. SEA projects it will have to provide $8.6 million in supplemental revenue to the Center this year, she said.

SEA makes up the Center’s operating deficit from a variety of sources, said Conturo. For 2020, it was a combination of the city’s hotel tax, SEA reserves, and federal CARES Act funds. In 2021, the projected $8.6 million will come from a grant from the Stadium Authority, which the SEA also operates, she said.

While its own operations do not turn a profit, the convention center is viewed as an economic driver because of the additional spending on hotels, restaurants and more by visitors, many of whom come from outside the region. Conturo said VisitPittsburgh, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau, calculated the Center’s economic impact in 2020 at $8.3 million – just a fraction of the pre-pandemic 2019 figure of $142 million.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: