With overwhelming support from the area's hotel, restaurant and retail sales operators, the Monterey City Council on Tuesday voted 4-0 in favor of a $32 million upgrade of the city conference center.

Speaker after speaker cited the 35-year-old facility's obsolescence in calling for a major remodel of the complex at Del Monte Avenue and Pacific Street.

Business leaders described the conference center as the anchor tenant of the downtown area, on whose success all other businesses depend.

A major factor in the remodeling is elimination of the 500-seat Steinbeck Forum with its sloping seat rows in favor of a flat-floor, 6,300-square-foot junior ballroom that can be reconfigured for meeting needs as required, said Brian Tennyson of LMN Architects, which studied the renovation plan and came up with four options.

"You can tune the room," he said, by adding stadium seating, stages or other amenities.

"We're not developing purpose-built rooms" for conference centers anymore, Tennyson said. Rooms have to be multipurpose and flexible to meet the needs of different conference customers.

Pam Wilson, director of education for the California State Bar Association, told the council "it's critical for us to come back, for the conference center to change."

Councilwoman Libby Downey questioned Tennyson about the problems cities that invested in new conference centers faced when they didn't live up to financial revenue expectations.

"Everybody thinks it's a cash cow," he replied. "Some communities should not invest in them, but they're not looking out over Monterey Bay."

The preferred option, he said, involves changes in all three floors of the center to more efficiently utilize space and add capacity for dividing rooms up with moveable walls, as well as upgrading the center's electrical, plumbing and lighting to current convention standards.

The upgrade package's cost was estimated at $30.7 million in 2011, which included $24.6 million in construction costs and $6.1 million for design, permits, inspections and other soft costs. The total cost is estimated at $32.3 million, Tennyson said. The project, when started, would take 18 months.

Councilman Frank Sollecito, in casting his vote for the remodel, noted only two people spoke negatively about the proposed project, both focusing on financing and potential risks.

One of them, Judy Karas, suggested the city "go slowly on this" and spend its money on revitalizing the downtown area. Among other things, she said, Monterey needs a homeless women's shelter.

Councilman Alan Haffa agreed the city has a lot of unmet needs, but "we can't do it if we don't have the money.

"When times are bad," he said, 'is the time to make an investment."

The council approval on moving forward with the project was contingent on formation of a conference center facilities district to pay for the center renovation funded by the city's hotels.

Mayor Chuck Della Sala recused himself from the deliberations, citing a potential conflict of interest because of his parents' ownership of a motel at 707 Pacific St.

Kevin Howe can be reached at 646-4416 or khowe@montereyherald.com