Can Glasgow afford to build a major new conference centre? A more pertinent question, perhaps, is can it afford not to.

The prospect of such a development has been raised by the chief executive of the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), the umbrella group of live music venues and conference facilities on the banks of the Clyde, as part of a mooted £80 million expansion project.

Peter Duthie said the SEC is currently turning conference business away because the current space provided by the SEC Centre, which sits on the campus next to concert venues the OVO Hydro and SEC Armadillo, is not big enough.

In an exclusive interview with The Herald, Mr Duthie declared a new conference centre would allow the SEC to attract “blockbuster events”.

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The SEC is ultimately owned by Glasgow City Council.

Given the current pressure on council budgets, critics may argue that the local authority cannot afford to help fund a major infrastructure project of this magnitude at this time.

The authority has had to mortgage a raft of prized property assets to fund a historic equal pay settlement and is undertaking significant public realm improvement works, in areas such as Sauchiehall Street. It has been shoring up its balance sheet with the controversial introduction of the low-emission zone (which involves fines for motorists who bring ineligible cars into its domain) and increasing car parking charges.

Mr Duthie, who is now in his 40th year with the SEC, acknowledged that the development of a new conference centre would require public funding. However, he expressed confidence that a public infrastructure project of this nature would not only “pay for itself quite quickly”, but ultimately become a significant generator of economic output “which in turn drives tax revenues”.

If Mr Duthie and the SEC did not have a track record of success in delivering major infrastructure projects, it would be easy to dismiss such a bold claim. But the fact is the SEC has very clearly demonstrated its nous in this area, given the outstanding impact that the OVO Hydro has had on the city over the last decade.

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The Hydro is now arguably the pre-eminent live music venue in Scotland, attracting shows from the biggest names in the global entertainment industry as a matter of course. This year, for example, will see such major artists as Stevie Nicks, Pet Shop Boys and James perform at the venue, following in the footsteps of an array of big-name acts, from Beyonce and Kylie Minogue to Jean-Michel Jarre and The Who. 

The impact of the Hydro and sister venue the Armadillo, which although smaller also attracts an illustrious roster of events, was made clear in the most recent accounts of the SEC, filed in November. The accounts, which cover the year ended March 31, 2023, state that the campus “generated net additional expenditure of £1.2m per day in the Glasgow area, a total of £428m for the year”.

Bosses add in the accounts: “The net additional expenditure in Scotland was measured at £264m and the rest of the UK was £176m. There were two million visitors to the campus during the year. The importance of a busy and successful SEC to a vibrant Glasgow is widely recognised with many businesses in the city benefiting from the footfall and resultant spend generated by events.”

In making the case for the new conference centre, Mr Duthie pointed to the bustling Finnieston area close to the SEC, which he said had been transformed by the opening of the Hydro. You would be hard pushed to find anyone who would disagree that the venue has played a key role in fostering the growth of the many bars and restaurants in a previously tired area of the west end.

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In the interview with The Herald, Mr Duthie held out the intriguing prospect of an expanded conference capability at the SEC stimulating new hospitality offerings on the south bank of the river immediately across from the campus, an area where there have long been hopes of regeneration. The south bank is home to BBC Scotland, STV and Glasgow Science Centre, but currently offers little in the way of hospitality.

Mr Duthie, who hopes the expansion proposals could attract private investors including a hotel operator, said: “There are areas across the water in the south side for development. I think just increasing the activity and footfall will help with more hotel opportunities and more restaurants.”

It is a prospect which has the support of trade body UKHospitality Scotland, with executive director Leon Thompson telling The Herald:  “Hospitality can be a major beneficiary of the SEC’s ambition to expand. Owners and operators of hotels, pubs, bars and restaurants will be applauding plans to expand the SEC, with increased capacity to bring even more events to Glasgow.

“We’ve already seen how hospitality businesses in Finnieston increased in number with the opening of the Hydro. These latest plans can recreate that economic ripple effect.

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“Our businesses in the city are already delivering exceptional experiences to guests and hospitality is central to Glasgow’s revitalisation. An expansion of the SEC will encourage more investment across hospitality, providing a real and sustainable boost to the economy, whilst creating more job opportunities.”

People who live and work in Glasgow are painfully aware that the city is currently facing major challenges. Indeed, only this week it emerged that footfall had declined in January and February, with Stuart Patrick, chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, observing that the city “continues to be outperformed by other UK cities such as Leeds and Manchester”.

The ongoing Avenues project to improve the landscape of the city centre, itself a laudable objective, is causing major upheaval for businesses on Sauchiehall Street which remains a shadow of its former self. And the business community continues to be at loggerheads with the council over its car policies, which it argues are causing people to stay away from the city through measures such as the LEZ and increased parking charges.

With the city centre pockmarked by vacant units, and ongoing concerns over public transport provision, there is no shortage of reasons to be downbeat about the state of Glasgow right now.

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At times like these, however, it is vital that building blocks are put in place to help restore prosperity in the long term. Which is precisely why the plans for a new conference centre at the SEC should be embraced.

Mr Patrick told The Herald:  “The economic benefits that SEC brings not just to Glasgow, but Scotland cannot be overstated. Its growth remains one of the biggest economic opportunities our city has to offer and would provide the sort of long-term job creation and investment opportunities that rarely presents itself. It is imperative that we grab the chance to drive positive expansion with both hands.

"Glasgow has successfully positioned itself as a global leader in event hosting, and the expansion plans for the SEC would capitalise on this, strengthening our ability to attract even more high-profile conferences and events and showcasing our city on a world stage.

"With the recent corporate report showing the economic impact of the campus generated net additional expenditure of £1.2m per day in the Glasgow area (a total of £428m for the year) then public finance support should be a no-brainer for decision-makers at all levels of government.”