United Methodists ‘break in’ new convention center

Within the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, there are 10,000 chairs, all of which are being used to seat United Methodist delegates and visitors meeting for the 2004 General Conference.

More than 100 convention center staff people are working daily to meet the needs of the United Methodists, who are meeting April 27-May 7. Some 480 gallons of water are pumped through 27 pumps in the waterfall feature that greets the delegates when they enter the center.

“It is big,” said Mark Leahy, general manager of the center. Based on the amount of space occupied in the new center, the General Conference is the biggest event to date, he said. The staff has worked furiously to ensure that the facility, which was brand new last year, meets the denomination’s needs, he said.

The staff of the convention center points out that ensuring the delegates’ comfort is good business.

According to city tourism officials, while the United Methodists meet in Pittsburgh, they will bring more than $7.3 million in direct spending to the state and local economy. An additional $254,000 will be paid by delegates in hotel taxes, $402,000 will go to state sales tax, and $67,000 will be generated in a tax that benefits area cultural groups.

The United Methodist Church’s two-week meeting is significantly longer than most groups’ conferences, which last two or three days. “Area merchants are seeing the Methodists’ name tags and realizing how much they’re giving to local businesses,” said Debbie Smucker, the center’s director of sales and marketing.

The $331 million convention center opened in September 2003. It is the world’s largest certified, environmentally smart “green building.”

Located on the Allegheny River, the facility plays with the themes of water and light, Leahy pointed out. Architect Rafael Vinoly claims he was inspired by the city’s suspension bridges, “the Three Sisters that cross the Allegheny River.” His design paid homage to these structures and the city’s past and future.

In the convention center’s promotional material, Vinoly likens the facility to “the city’s living room.”

The center was named after David Lawrence, the mayor of Pittsburgh from 1945 to 1958 and governor of Pennsylvania from 1959 to 1963. The 1.5 million-square-foot structure sits on 7.9 acres, includes 53 meeting rooms, a 313,400-square-foot exhibit space, and more than 25 pieces of juried artwork valued at more than $2 million.

United Methodists are not the only big group to use the convention center this year, although they are the most neat and tidy, Smucker said. Prior to this conference, the National Rifle Association held its convention here. This year, 28 conventions are scheduled, with a projected attendance of 134,600.

The success of the convention center is drawing the attention of community developers. Plans are under way for the construction of an African-American cultural center on Liberty Avenue, and Smucker said the Smithsonian Institution is talking about extending its history center, which is down the street from the convention center.

* Lauber is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. ater May 10: (615) 742-5470.

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