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

Steve Lackmeyer
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: November 18, 2012

State gatherings have an economic impact throughout the year. Restaurant operators in Bricktown don't discount the importance of a Future Farmers of America conference that draws thousands of high school students from across the state.

Statewide and regional conferences also tend to fill not just restaurants, but hotels as well.

Competition, meanwhile, isn't just found in faraway places, but within 15-minute drives of downtown at the Reed Center in Midwest City.

The Reed Center is newer, and quite frankly, doesn't share the Cox Convention Center's throwback to the brutalist big box architecture of the 1970s. And Edmond is in ongoing discussions to build a convention center and hotel along Interstate 35.

Carrier, tasked with increasing tourism and convention business — and thus drawing outside money into the city — has attempted to compete for bigger conferences while warding off competition from neighbors.

During a report delivered to the Oklahoma City Council in September, Carrier gave a picture of a city that is holding its own in the convention business despite such odds.

Carrier said the city exceeded its goal of 324,000 room night sales and instead booked 417,000 room nights. Direct spending, however, totaled $190.6 million, short of the convention bureau's goal of $231.5 million.

Downtown hotels, he added, are showing the best occupancy rates in decades.

Critics of plans to build the new $250 million convention center, a MAPS 3 project, question whether the payoff will cover the investment. They question, if the city builds it, will they really come?

Advocates, including Councilwoman Meg Salyer, said that such questions dogged the original MAPS program in the 1990s.

Indeed, the Chesapeake Energy Arena — now home to sold-out Thunder games — once was dismissed as a potential black hole that couldn't be supported with the concerts, sports and special events being booked at the old Cox Arena in the 1990s.

Experts warned the odds were against the city luring any major league team, especially an NBA franchise.

Kaatz told the city in 2008, and reiterated last week, that it boasts an increasingly good story to sell to convention planners. Bricktown, the Oklahoma River, the Myriad Gardens, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and the Oklahoma City National Memorial are all seen as key to a sales pitch Carrier and his crew can use to draw more business — if the city can just provide a modern convention center and the hotel rooms needed to house larger groups.

At a price of $250 million, with another $50 million or more possibly to be committed for a conference hotel, the convention center project is the biggest chunk of MAPS 3.

The most expensive item in the first MAPS, the $87.7 million arena, was built despite arguments it would go largely unused with no tenants. Build it, proponents said, “and they will come.” Advocates point out history has shown they did.

by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist 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 Metropolitan...
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