Convention center construction is coming back strong with 20 new projects on the books through 2010. Last year, Venues Today reported 18 projects on the books — with five new facilities coming on line this year considering three have officially opened for business: the brand new Bayfront Convention Center in Erie, Pa.; the Palmetto Convention Center in Greenville, S.C., and the expansion of McCormick Place West in Chicago.             New facilities make up six of the projects on this year’s construction chart, representing an investment of $649 million and bringing approximately 1.1 million square feet of new meeting space into the market. Facility expansions represent an investment of $3.7 billion with 4.1 million square feet in new exhibit halls, meeting spaces and ballrooms. And while political disagreements continue to be the main speed bump holding up projects in Nashville and Cleveland, the skyrocketing costs of construction and materials remains the largest issue for new facilities and expansions, said Don Grinberg, principal of the convention center group at HNTB.             “People want their project to begin immediately when they get us on board because of the fear of inflation,” he said. His firm just opened a new ballroom for the Kansas City Convention Center, a project he said he was able to successfully undertake by setting up a strong decision-making process early on that didn’t get bogged down with the thousands of choices key executives must make during construction.                 “Whenever working on these projects, I’ve learned that you need to have a process of setting up a logical understanding of what has to be decided when,” he said. “We try to create a flow of information and decisions so they flow in a logical order. When you get all those parties working together, you can develop a collective buy-in that can help you tackle hot button issues and problems before they arise.”             The big project for HNTB continues to be the $400 million Las Vegas Convention Center expansion, which is reconfiguring most of its space to create multi-function spaces as well as new pedestrian pathways along the south part of the facility.                  “We’re also seeing the emergence of the pre-function space as a viable place to host events,” said Grinberg. “Many facility managers are looking to get more out of that space and one way to do that is the use of electronic signage. You’re seeing a lot more multimedia applications being applied in those spaces.”             One facility that continues to maximize its pre-function space is the Virginia Beach Convention Center, which has finalized the installation of its prefunction area video wall, a 360-foot long, nine-foot high projection screen divided into 90-foot sections through four parts of the facility. Many clients are beginning to work with the staff’s video production department to create content for the video wall, but staff have also commissioned two separate pieces to display on the wall if event management has developed their own content.                    “They’re also highly functional with the end-panel on each side being used to display convention information like meeting times, maps and schedules,” said the facility’s General Manager Courtney Dyer. “The system is linked into our event management software, so we’re able to display pretty seamlessly.”               The other driving factor in construction is the need for space versatility, said David Greusel, principal for architect HOK’s Venue Group. More spaces are looking for multiple uses out of common spaces, especially ballrooms, as a way to diversify their bookings and reduce the amount of black dates on the books.             Greusel points to the new Irving (Texas) Convention Center the company recently landed a contract to design. Slated to open in 2010 under SMG management, Greusel describes the building as a “hybrid facility” with a new 50,000 square foot exhibit hall that will double as a 7,500-seat spectator arena with removable chairs that will be ushered in and out of the building.                        “It’s similar to the Dodge Arena in Hidalgo, or the Orleans Arena in Vegas — it’s a mid-sized space,” he said. “The city is looking to get more use out of the building by being able to program a wider amount of events.”                         But the space is not without its challenges. Greusel said meeting the need and requirements of a meeting space and a performance venue can be very challenging. For one, it’s difficult to provide the correct electrical and utility conduits on the same floor that will later be used for basketball flooring, or iced-over for a hockey game.             “There are some conflicts with the technical aspects of the performance space,” he said. “Then there’s the entrance issue. For meetings and expos, organizers want visitors to enter at the event level. But when you have an arena event, people like to come at the top level and work their way down.”                       And while green building issues continue to dominate the planning process, Grinberg said he’s also seeing owners seek designs with optimal functionality.                    “There’s a lot of concern about technical relevance and future-proofing facilities so they don’t become outdated in five to 10 years and they don’t have to start over again,” he said. “A lot of those problems can be solved by carefully selecting what goes into the walls. We’re developing empty conduits to string future lines that will be required with new technologies, especially as communication capabilities change.”             There’s also a sense that architects need to envision which areas of the convention center will require power conduits in the future, even if they’re not currently being used. Anticipating the way the facility may change and expand is crucial, he said.                   “Broadcasting wireless won’t solve everything; you still need to plan for the implanting of wires,” he said. “Even wireless beacons have to be wired, at least to the main server.”                     As for the future of design, Grinberg said he expects to see more facilities tap into their surrounding characteristics and develop as an extension of their destination.                   “The movement is to make buildings very contextual and not impose on cities or let the cities impose on them. The goals is to let things fit into their surroundings,” he said. “There’s increased competition with these buildings and many are looking at how to differentiate themselves from others.”                Greusel agreed and said, “our vision is to make sure the buildings have a positive effect on what the building is all about. Whether it’s the rock formations in Phoenix, or the winding river of Peoria, buildings have to tell their story in an effective way. It’s their chance to showcase their city to the wider world.” Interviewed for this story: Don Grinberg, (617) 542-6900; David Greusel, (816) 329-4400; Courtney Dyer (757) 385-2161