Can A $250M Convention Center Bring Big Business To OKC?

Wednesday, April 30th 2014, 10:32 pm
By: News 9

Plans to build the most expensive project in the 20-year history of this city's MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) program continue to move forward, despite concerns raised by paid experts.

In 2009, voters approved a new $250 million convention center as part of the MAPS 3 project roster. The project was sold to the public as a way to attract new convention business to Oklahoma City, and new tax revenues along with it.

Oklahoma City's current convention facility, the Cox Center, wasn't built for conventions.

"Functionally, it's a challenging building," said Mike Carrier. "Structurally, it's an old building."

As president of the OKC Convention and Visitors Bureau, Carrier is in the business of attracting conventions. He says it's getting harder and harder to compete with other cities in the region.

"We're gonna lose a significant portion of business, if we don't do something," Carrier stated.

Carrier says the city is already losing business because of the Cox Center's limitations. He keeps a 'lost business' log, in which he tracks meetings and events that considered, but chose not to come to Oklahoma. It lists the reasons meeting planners cited for not coming.

According to that log, since 2007, Oklahoma City has missed out on events that would have had a combined economic impact of about $1 billion.

"The size of the convention facility is one primary reason," Carrier said, referring to the 100,000 square feet available at the Cox Center.

A new 470,000 square foot convention center -- that's the size of the MAPS 3 facility -- would solve that problem.

That was one of the conclusions of a feasibility study commissioned by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce in 2008, in advance of the MAPS 3 vote. The same study also concluded there are numerous other "challenges" the city faces in attracting conventions.

Most voters never heard about those other obstacles, however, because the privately-funded study was never made public -- only an executive summary.

The study and its implications for the convention center project have been a frequent topic of discussion at Oklahoma City City Council meetings over the last few years. Just this past December, members debated whether to formally request the Chamber, which paid for the study, release it in full to the public.

"There's nothing in there that's proprietary or...that other cities wouldn't understand," argued Ward 2 councilman Ed Shadid, who has been highly critical of the convention center project.

"But that's not the position of the people who did it," replied Ward 8 councilman Patrick Ryan. "Their position is, it might."

The motion failed, and OKC Chamber leaders continue to limit access to the now 5-year-old study.

"We weren't trying to keep anything secret," said Cynthia Reid, the Chamber's Vice President for Marketing and Communications, "but we're also not trying to brag about shortcomings with our competition."

Chamber members are allowed to view the study, and members of the media can read it, but only in person. 9 Investigates accepted the offer.

According to the authors (Conventions, Sports and Leisure, International), even with a new convention center, Oklahoma City's efforts to bring in larger conventions would still be challenged by limited air access, limited quality hotel rooms, a low marketing budget, and the city's low overall appeal.

The study also says that a headquarters hotel, to go with a new convention center, is a must and would probably have to be financed, at least in part, with public money.

"We don't know what the deal will be here," said CVB President Carrier.

Carrier says he has seen many different publicly-financed headquarters hotels and that no two financing deals are the same.

"There are cities that own the hotel totally," said Carrier. "There are cities that have put only a minimal amount of money in it."

The new convention center is supposed to be built just west of the Chesapeake Arena, at what will someday by the north edge of the city's new Central Park.

Once the plans are drawn up, the city will put out a request for proposals from hotel developers. Any deal the city manager negotiates would ultimately have to be approved by the city council.