New convention center is priority, study finds
By Steve Lackmeyer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS, Page 1A
Oklahoma City is at a crossroad in its quest to become a second-tier convention market, and a new study commissioned by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber recommends building a $400 million convention center to ensure the city stays competitive.
The study by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, suggests that replacing the 38-year-old Cox Convention Center will cost $250 million to $400 million.
Mayor Mick Cornett has suggested for the past two years that any MAPS 3 should include a new convention center as a priority project. That call is being joined by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.
“We believe the convention center plays a vital role in the development of the visitor industry and in the development of downtown,” said David Thompson, chamber chairman. “This study tells us clearly that our current center is not large enough, nor does it boast the amenities we need to be competitive. It is time for us to make an investment in this industry or recognize that we are slowly going out of business as far as conventions are concerned.”
Roy Williams, chamber president, said discussions began with the city and the Oklahoma State Fair Board about launching a marketing study on how to attract more visitors.
Williams said Conventions, Sports & Leisure was chosen because of reputation and prior experience looking at Oklahoma City’s convention market.
Williams said the study is ongoing. The first phase included a comparison to cities Oklahoma City competes with for conventions, and a destination market analysis that considers the likelihood the city can move up to the next tier with a new convention center.
“The destination market analysis looks at other amenities you should have to attract visitors,” Williams said. “It looks at the total component of visitor attractions.”
Williams quoted the consultants as saying Oklahoma City is assured increased business if it builds a new convention center.
“There is an element out there who questions should we really try to do something more?” Williams said. “Part of that is cultural — are we good enough, big enough, savvy enough to step out there on the edge? The best consultants in the U.S. say ‘You sure are. You have the product. When you did MAPS, you built a new city and created a new experience, a unique product.’ But it’s not something you can leave alone, you have to improve it.”
Williams said the consultants reported the city is exceeding visitors’ expectations but is failing to attract many convention planners who won’t even consider the city because of its inadequate facilities.
Officials said last week’s American Choral Directors convention was a big economic boost for the city with delegates staying in 2,500 hotel rooms at 14 different properties.
The visitors could be found drinking lattes at Starbucks and dining at Nonna’s in Bricktown, buying gifts at the Painted Door and stopping at just about every tourist attraction.
As director of the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Michael Carrier would like to bring such business to the city throughout the year. But he is among a growing chorus of people insisting that without a new convention center, the city will move backward, not forward.
“What we need to be looking at is the kind of business we want to do and can be doing. Things like Sonic (convention), which we hosted a year ago, and Express, which we have since lost. To do it, we have to have the facility these folks expect.”
Carrier notes that even Shreveport, La., which he left in 2004, has a far better convention center than Oklahoma City.
Carrier notes modern convention centers, like the one in Charlotte, N.C., have 22 loading docks compared with just two at the Cox Center. Such limitations create a lot of “dark” days in the Cox Center’s exhibit halls.
The exhibit areas, he said, are worn-out and not up to today’s market needs. He wants to see an architecturally stunning building, one where exhibitors and meeting planners can find an electrical outlet or microphone outlet wherever they need one. One that doesn’t have an array of columns interrupting floor flow.
John Kaatz, author of the study released Tuesday, reported the Cox Center’s exhibit space also is the smallest offered among more than a dozen competing cities including Tulsa, Fort Worth, Texas, and Austin. He said planners interviewed who had been to the city gave it a very favorable rating, but 41 percent of them said they will need more space for future meetings.
Kaatz said improvements done in 1999 as part of MAPS aren’t sufficient.
“The expansion in 1999 created modern meeting space at the front of the building, but there is something of a time portal when you go into the exhibit space,” Kaatz said. “Meeting planners today expect the whole package.”
AT A GLANCE
Cox Convention Center snapshot
The Cox Convention Center was built in 1971 and expanded in 1999.
Exhibit space: Totals 100,000 square feet. Consultants note the ceilings are 24 feet high compared with the industry standard of 30 to 35 feet. The space is filled with support columns that do not meet modern exhibitor standards. Electrical and other infrastructure also are considered substandard. The exhibit space is managed by SMG.
Meeting space: The MAPS program added 28,600 square feet in 1999, replacing other meeting rooms that had become outdated and virtually unusable for modern conferences. The rooms are managed by John Q. Hammons Hotels, which also operates the attached Renaissance Hotel.
Ballrooms: Totaling 25,000 square feet, this space also was added during the 1999 expansion and is managed by Hammons.
Parking: 947 underground spaces are managed by Republic Parking. Convention officials say that because of loading and structural issues, modern convention centers rarely are built atop parking. The parking is one of the reasons cited for not being able to expand the convention center any further.
Consultants with Conventions, Sports & Leisure International report that the Cox Center has hosted between 37 and 44 annual events using exhibit space in recent years, amounting to an average of 151 to 158 days where the halls are booked by users.
The exhibit halls have between 19 and 41 events booked for 2009 and 2010.
Historically, exhibit space occupancy ranged from a low of 28 percent in 2007 to a high of 31 percent in 2003. Consultants suggest low occupancy is due to the low quality of the space and the management split between SMG, Hammons and Republic Parking.
The lack of a headquarters convention hotel and lack of market exposure to meeting planners is hampering the city’s ability to draw bigger events.
Convention center improvements under way in Tulsa and Nashville, Tenn., and completed projects elsewhere will continue to diminish Oklahoma City’s ability to compete for high-dollar conferences.
A survey of meeting planners ranked Oklahoma City 10th among 13 comparable markets as a convention host.
Consultants recommend construction of a new convention center with between 200,000 and 300,000 square feet of exhibit space; between 50,000 and 75,000 square feet of meeting space and between 30,000 and 50,000 square feet of ballroom space. The study estimates construction costs at $350 per square foot with an additional 25 percent for soft costs. With land acquisition and green design added in, the project cost range is between $250 million and $400 million.
Mayor Mick Cornett has begun asking audiences whether 2009 is the right time to launch a MAPS 3 sales-tax initiative with the existing sales tax for Ford Center improvements set to expire next year. A penny sales tax generates $100 million a year. Cornett also suggests that a MAPS 3 initiative, if launched, should also include a central park for Core to Shore and public transit improvements. Other suggested projects include boathouse-related improvements to the Oklahoma River and an extension of the Bricktown Canal.
Chamber President Roy Williams predicts planning for a new convention will be complicated, and an opening would take six years if started today. Ideally, Williams says, a proposal should include a hotelier ready to commit to building a convention hotel as part of the project if approved by voters. Williams added the convention center and hotel should open at the same time.