Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mount Vernon Considers Expo Center for Tourism

Consultants looking into the possibility of a new convention and trade center for Mount Vernon told the city council last night the project was feasible and more planning should be conducted.

The study’s bottom line assessment stated an active, well-run exhibition center would improve tourism numbers, add tax revenue, revitalize peripheral spending and attract visitors, who may later return to the city or even relocate to Mt. Vernon.

An exhibition center as a destination facility, according to the study, will typically host three types of events: Flat floor trade shows, consumer events and civic events. For these purposes, the study recommended a 60,000-square-foot facility with additional space for storage, offices, restrooms and a catering kitchen. Study organizers estimated local construction costs at an estimated $7.2 to $8.2 million, not including land, infrastructure and parking.

The issue is a perennial one for Mount Vernon. The Vernois Activity Center from the late 1970s or early '80s, called for a multi-purpose center built on the block behind Mount Vernon Township High School. The idea then was to build something the school could use on a daily basis, but also provide large convention space for other activities.

Former state Rep. Larry Hicks, pushed for a state-financed civic center project in the 80s.

The new plan is calling for something closer to the Pavilion in Marion. With that in mind Mount Vernon officials should take a much closer look and at least learn the lessons from the Pavilion in Marion.

The study's call for a 60,000 square foot building would probably be a 300' x 200' building, which at one time was the plans for the Pavilion. That building started out as 400' x 200', then shrank to 300' x 200' at the time the tourism bureau took bids. Once contractors returned their bids, it shrank some more to 300' x 172', a size that turned out to be one compromise too many for the building to be really effective.

Another part of the study that should be remembered is the catering kitchen. Without it the building's usefulness becomes seriously questioned. It's one of the amenities left out of the Pavilion.

A key line in the study is an "active, well-run exhibition center." That won't happen if you build and just turn it over to the tourism bureau to run. The tourism director Bonnie Jerdon doesn't have the staff to do all that's needed in tourism. Williamson County Tourism had the same issue when the Pavilion opened.

Any convention center needs its own staff. Paying for that staff becomes the issue. The Vernois Activity Center idea probably wouldn't have done that much for overnight stays and tourism, but at least the high school would have been able to cover the administrative cost and operations.

One key item not mentioned is the simple fact that convention centers don't do diddly for overnight hotel stays unless they can host conventions. Most of the business at the Pavilion doesn't generate overnight stays. When I was there we estimated only about 8 percent of the attendance ended up in hotels, generating about 1200 hotels stays. In other words, the Pavilion did the equivalent of filling up all of the hotel rooms in the county for one night out of the year.

If you want conventions, attach the building to a hotel, or better yet, a cluster of hotels. The people who plan conventions want to be able to walk from their rooms to the meeting rooms.

Another item not mentioned in the Register-News' article deals with the competition such a center would mean for the existing Holiday Inn, as well as the Rend Lake Resort and their convention space.

If the financials make sense to pursue a center, the city should look at attaching it to the Holiday Inn on the north side. Although it has the largest meeting space in the city, it's too small and doesn't have enough breakout rooms for even the small conventions that use Rend Lake.

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