Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sports arena not recommended for downtown center

By Steve Vied, Messenger-Inquirer
Published: Thursday, May 27, 2010 1:14 AM CDT
The "optimal" downtown Owensboro events center will be packed with amenities, but what it should not have is a sports arena.

That was among the chief recommendations made by consulting firms hired to assist a local steering committee planning the events center.

On Wednesday, representatives of CityVisions Associates of Louisville and ConsultEcon of Boston told the steering committee that the Sportscenter is the best place for large sports events, leaving the downtown center to concentrate on conventions, trade shows, business conferences, consumer shows, music and entertainment shows, community events and smaller athletic events.

CityVisions managing partner Barry Alberts said Owensboro is in a good position to create a unique facility that will do even in a competitive market. But he also said facilities that combine convention centers and sports arenas serve neither market very well.

"Major events such as basketball should stay at the Sportscenter," Alberts said. "It's 60 years old, but it's really well maintained. ... National experience suggests that arenas and convention centers (together) are expensive to create and do not provide optimal facilities and space for either purpose."

CityVisions and ConsultEcon presented two sizes of events centers. The optimal center contains 138,350 square feet -- big enough to attract more than 180,000 visitors a year and produce $1.9 million in annual operating revenue.

It would feature such amenities as a 40,000-square-foot, dividable convention space, four ballrooms totaling 14,000 square feet, a room overlooking the Ohio River and a lecture hall with tiered seating. It would book 12 conventions or trade shows a year, 35 business conferences, 14 consumer shows and 20 music and entertainment events, they said.

The consultants also suggested adding a 20,000- to 40,000-square-foot inflatable fabric structure to create additional space for larger trade shows and athletic events.

At $250 per square foot in estimated construction costs, building the optimally sized events center would cost about $34 million, considerably more than the approximately $27 million the city and county budgeted to spend on the center. However, the consultants also presented a "minimal" option calling for just under 100,000 square feet that would cost about $25 million.

The smaller center would have smaller spaces in general, a less than full-service kitchen and not include the river overlook room or lecture hall.

What may happen, Owensboro mayor and steering committee member Ron Payne said, is the events center will be built somewhere between the minimum and the optimal sizes.

"My feeling is, something in between, but we have to determine the available dollars and the operating costs, and I don't have those numbers."

Payne said the city may decide to spend more than its original $7 million commitment to the events center if the money can be found in its nearly $60 million downtown revitalization project fund.

"I don't want to spend $25 million and it not be enough and we're not in the game and not be competitive," Payne said. "We've got to do it right. ... We may have to spend more dollars up front."

Alberts and Bob Brais of ConsultEcon didn't get any arguments about excluding a sports arena from the events center. Much of the discussion centered on the proper size of the building. The smaller version would attract fewer events, and annual revenue would be closer to $1.2 million, while operating costs would not be proportionately less than the larger facility, Alberts said.

"Are we saying if we spend a little more up front, are we going to make more money in the long run?" Payne asked.

"We were surprised that the opportunity was a robust as it is," Alberts said. "With a larger center, it really improves. In our experience, the more reputable trade shows and conventions go back to places that really served them well. The best facilities focus on good marketing."

"Does the minimal facility differentiate us from anyone?" City Commissioner David Johnson asked.

It does, Alberts answered, because of the events center's connection to the redeveloped riverfront. He said the RiverPark Center, the three-block-long revamped river wall/Smothers Park area and the events center will offer visitors a compact, walkable area with great views of the Ohio River.

The smaller events center will be distinctive but not as marketable as the larger version, Alberts said.

"As you move to the larger facility, you are able to do more marketing and have more presence," said Brais, who joined by conference call from Boston. "You will also have a 'close the deal' type of space."

Malcolm Bryant, the developer building a downtown hotel that will be connected to the events center, said nothing he heard Wednesday caused him to be concerned. He said he agreed with the consultants' recommendation that the events center focus on meetings and conventions.

"No. 1, it needs to be well done," Bryant said. "No. 2, it needs to take advantage of the river. The next step is to develop a site plan. Will the VFW be a go? Will it incorporate the McConnell Plaza?"

The city has approached the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 696 about selling the riverfront property to the city. McConnell Plaza is immediately west of the VFW.

The next meeting of the steering committee is at 9 a.m. June 9 at the Daviess County Courthouse.

Steve Vied, 691-7297, svied@messenger-inquirer.com