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OKC Central: Build it, they'll come, say supporters

Steve Lackmeyer
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: November 18, 2012

The consultant Convention Sports & Leisure has had the difficult task of assessing the convention industry, and has worked up plenty of studies nationwide trying to help cities decide whether to expand their facilities.

But a story in The Oklahoman last Sunday detailing an expansion at Chicago's McCormack Place — one followed by declining attendance — incorrectly reported Convention Sports & Leisure had consulted on the project.

That was my mistake, and I offer up my sincerest apology. In assembling a list of convention center expansions, attendance performance and firms attached to expansions, I placed some notes about Convention Sports & Leisure with the wrong project.

The story itself showed the complicated nature of projecting the future direction of the convention industry and how each city, including Oklahoma City, has to carefully calculate its next step in the effort to stay competitive.

With reports of declining convention attendance, increased supply of meeting space and competitive incentives being offered by some cities, critics like Texas academic Heywood Sanders paint an unfavorable picture of the industry for any city considering further expansion.

But Greater Oklahoma City Chamber President Roy Williams, among others, say the numbers, especially the averages, don't always tell the full story.

Minor league baseball and major league basketball teams around the country have reported declining attendance. But both the Oklahoma City Triple A RedHawks baseball team and NBA Thunder have enjoyed robust crowds, Williams notes.

At the high end of every average, Williams said, is a performance that exceeds expectations.

“Oklahoma City has a record of winning,” Williams said in response to critics. “We seem to understand better how to make these things successful.”

John Kaatz, who authored the study for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, and Michael Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, both say the city may have an opportunity in the midst of the economic turmoil of recent years, especially if other cities pull back on expansions during what Kaatz believes is a growing recovery in the industry.

Douglas L. Ducate, president and chief executive of the Dallas-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, meanwhile, pointed out just how seemingly dismal numbers sometimes can be deceiving.

If Oklahoma City had tried to gain a stronghold in the homebuilding convention business, it would have discovered attendance numbers far worse than the overall industry decline because of the depressed building sector. But Ducate also noted that medical conferences would have paid off fairly well, as that aspect of the market showed only a slight drop in activity during the worst of the recession.

Readers of last week's story, meanwhile, responded with a mix of outright opposition to further involvement in the convention business to embarrassment over the city's current accommodations at the Cox Convention Center.

Anyone who works day to day downtown can attest that conventions and conferences bring money into city coffers. Even a regional meeting can fill up hotel rooms and seats at restaurants throughout downtown.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's...
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