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The Rhode Island Convention Center was vital during the pandemic. Now it’s poised to save the state’s economy

The center’s 500-bed capacity was never reached. The Rhode Island Convention Center was a critical COVID-19 coronavirus field hospital during the pandemic. The building reverted back to its intended purpose in anticipation of again hosting events.
The center’s 500-bed capacity was never reached. The Rhode Island Convention Center was a critical COVID-19 coronavirus field hospital during the pandemic. The building reverted back to its intended purpose in anticipation of again hosting events.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

No one ever says thank you to the folks that run the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority because, let’s be honest, most people don’t really know who they are. Most people don’t even know that they run The Dunk and the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in addition to the Rhode Island Convention Center.

But if you see executive director Dan McConaghy, general manager Lawrence Lepore, or any member of their team around town this summer, the least you can do is buy them a beer at Murphy’s.

They’ve been through a lot over the last 15 months.

Normally, their job is to prepare for the rivalry game between the Providence College and University of Rhode Island basketball teams in early December, or the Monster Trucks event that your kids insist they can’t possibly miss. Or welcome us to the Home Show and Boat Show each year.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented any of those events from happening for more than a year, and yet the facilities managed by the convention center authority somehow became even more essential to everyday life.

From running a field hospital at the convention center to mass testing and vaccination sites at The Dunk, and serving as home base for significant parts of state government at the VETs (including weekly press conferences held by the governor and meetings of the House of Representatives), all three buildings were vital to keeping Rhode Islanders informed, healthy, and safe during some of our darkest hours.

Now, as large-scale events get ready to come back in person, those facilities in Providence are going to be critical in revitalizing Rhode Island’s economy after a long stretch of stagnation.

“Now it’s time to pivot from becoming what I thought was the most important facility in Rhode Island to accommodate for COVID to getting back to business,” McConaghy told me during a recent tour of the convention center. “Now what I say is, ‘It’s time to get back to business to get Rhode Island back in business.’”

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When I visited the convention center last month, the final remnants of the field hospital were finally getting broken down. More than 500 patients, usually those in the final stages of recovering from COVID-19, were treated at the facility, easing pressure on hospitals that officials feared were on the verge of being overcrowded.

The field hospital, which was paid for with federal funding that came early in the pandemic, was only one part of the story.

Teams at The Dunk and the convention center assembled more than 700,000 COVID-19 test kits that were distributed across the state, and more than 257,000 COVID-19 tests were conducted on site. As of May, more than 100,000 vaccinations were administered at The Dunk.

McConaghy, who became the authority’s executive director in January following the death of longtime executive director James McCarville in November, said the VETs housed all three branches of state government at various points. That includes grand jury proceedings when other offices were closed, just in case an indictment was necessary.

McConaghy praised Governor Dan McKee and former governor and current US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo for trusting the team at the convention center authority to deliver for the state. He also credited the National Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Lifespan for being important partners throughout the pandemic.

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But McConaghy and Lepore were clear about one thing: They can’t wait to see all their partners pack up so The Dunk, convention center, and the VETs can get back to normal.

The first test will come in August when the JLC Live Residential Construction Show returns to Providence for its 25th year of events. JLC Live probably isn’t a household name, but McConaghy said it will bring between 4,000 and 5,000 people to city over several days. He estimates the show will generate a direct spend of $1.5 million for the economy.

“And they like to have fun,” Lepore joked, pointing out the construction show attendees typically spend a lot of time in the bars and restaurants around downtown.

That’s a big factor for all events that come to Providence. A key Friars game or Disney on Ice can fill all establishments around The Dunk, but many of those businesses have struggled to survive through the pandemic. Larger events, like when Providence hosts the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament again in 2025, generate tens of millions of dollars for hotels and other businesses in the city.

McConaghy said Providence has to prepare for life after COVID-19.

He has already put together a list of more than $80 million in projects – most of which he calls “shovel ready” – to help improve the facilities in Providence. He said the convention center needs adapt to a world where people aren’t always going to be comfortable being in large crowds, so smaller rooms in the building are one option.

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He said the upgrades could be covered by a portion of the $1.78 billion that Rhode Island received through the federal American Rescue Plan, and the list has been submitted to McKee.

Rhode Island also has plenty of new competitors from around the country, McConaghy said. Normally, the Providence facilities count Hartford or Worcester as their key rivals for wooing mid-sized conventions and other events. Now everyone is competing for foot traffic, so cities like Baltimore and Louisville, Ky., are battling it out with Providence.

“We have a vision to reimagine some of the spaces within the Convention Center while also upgrading other areas to attract conventions and events,” McConaghy said. “We need to position ourselves for the post-COVID world to stay ahead of our competitors.”

Well, if the last year is any indicator, I wouldn’t count these guys out.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.