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When the pandemic hit last March, the Javits Center was faced with the challenge of having the largest empty space in New York City.

The Javits Vaccination Center empty at 10:30am on Tuesday morning. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Since then, the west side conference center has been transformed twice to rescue the city from a healthcare crisis. First, it was converted into a 2,500-bed emergency hospital. Then earlier this year, it became the flagship public vaccination center for the state. At times, it was administering 14,000 shots daily on a 24/7 schedule, with lines around the block.

Yesterday, the vaccination center on 11th Avenue was free of lines and people. It’s only a matter of time before its vaccination role for the city comes to an end. Then, the Javits Center again faces the challenge of how to fill its halls — and to add to that, it will need to find customers for the extra 1.2 million square feet of event-related space nearing completion in late May at a cost of $1.5 billion.

The expansion to the Hell’s Kitchen center was underway prior to the pandemic, with the goal of attracting larger convention and trade shows to bring in millions of dollars to the city’s economy. Pre-expansion, it was the twelfth largest convention center in the US at 1.8 million square feet with 840,000 square feet of that being exhibit space.

While the fate of shows — which rely on thousands and thousands of visitors each day — is still unclear, the center does have a few events scheduled in the near future. The International Beauty Show is set to be the first, hosting its annual in-person event in late July.

Javits Convention Center on 11th Avenue. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Historically, the Javits Center has hosted the New York International Auto Show (since 1987), New York Comic Con (since 2006) and was the planned site of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential election “glass ceiling” event. As convention shows get larger, the state hoped that the new expansion would pave the way for New York City to be more of a dominant force for big organization gatherings. The additional square footage makes Javits the largest convention center in the Northeast — but it is smaller than giants like McCormick Place in Chicago and Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

The conference center opened in 1986 under Governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, and is owned by the New York Convention Center Operating Corporation, a quasi-private organization with a state-chosen board of directors.

Workers completing the new $1.5bn extension to the Javits Center. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

Alan Steel, Chief Executive of the Javits Center, spoke to the New York Times about the expansion this week, admitting that due to the mystery of post-pandemic life and the fate of indoor gatherings, they’re “in a little bit of uncharted territory.” Steel questioned future conferences: “Will they be as big? Will they be as well attended?”

Zoom, the video communications company, is a big game-changer and threat to conferences. Zoom showed the world how easy it is to work from home and conduct a virtual business meeting, and is now doing the same for conventions and trade shows. The Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) held its 95th convention virtually last week. They took advantage of Zoom’s ease of connecting international visitors to attract more than 3,000 attendees.

Governor Cuomo celebrates opening of Javits Center as temporary hospital in March 2020. Photo: Darren McGee/Office of Governor.

Governor Cuomo has made the Javits Center a key part of his plans for the $51bn development of Manhattan Midtown West — which includes linking the center to the High Line and Pier 76 (the former NYPD Tow Pound across the West Side Highway).

With shows like the Toy Fair canceled and the annual Book Expo shelved for good, the Javits will need some critical support to return to health. Seeing the conference center full and returning to being a key economic engine of the city will be a sign that New York is back.

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