After years of kicking around options to bring a large-scale convention center to downtown Springfield, Bass Pro Shops’ campus is now in the mix as a possible site.
Tracy Kimberlin, president and CEO of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the CVB has asked Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners to conduct a feasibility study to examine if a convention center could work around the flagship Bass Pro Outdoor World at Sunshine Street and Campbell Avenue. He said Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium’s opening in September 2017 has spurred new discussion about a convention center complex.
“I’ve been beating this ‘we need a convention center’ drum for a long time,” Kimberlin said.
Even with a new report in the works – Hunden’s third for the city, following others in 2011 and 2016 – Kimberlin said a 1.7-acre piece of land downtown that has long been considered as a site for a city convention center attached to the Springfield Expo Center is still an option. He said the new Hunden report is a way for local officials to review a previously unstudied portion of town.
A lot of traffic and positive buzz is being generated by WOW, which opened around the same time Kimberlin accompanied representatives with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce on a leadership visit to Boise, Idaho.
“I probably had a dozen people ask me on that trip if we’d ever considered a convention center around the Bass Pro complex,” he said.
Pointing to the impact of WOW on city tourism, Kimberlin said the city’s year-to-date hotel room demand is up 8.7 percent through May 2018.
“I would take half of that increase and be happy as a lark,” he said.
Those factors led the CVB to request another Hunden report.
The CVB asked for the report to be completed in two phases, with the first to determine if a convention center can work in the area. Kimberlin said if the answer to the question is yes, a second phase would recommend a detailed plan.
If both phases of the report are completed, Kimberlin estimated the cost at around $70,000. He added the CVB will pick up a significant portion, if not all, of the expense. The report is expected to be complete in a couple months, he said.
This won’t be the first Hunden report to study other locations in town, either.
The 2016 report considered the Battlefield Road and Highway 65 area, as well as the Glenstone Avenue and Kearney Street corridor, Kimberlin said. However, the downtown location was determined to still be preferred for a convention center complex, he said.
Much like 2011, recommendations from the 2016 report have yet to be acted upon. Kimberlin pointed to the city’s management contract with JQH Hotels & Resorts and the uncertainty surrounding the late John Q. Hammons’ estate and control over properties, such as downtown’s University Plaza Hotel, as difficult hurdles to overcome.
In the city’s agreement, Hammons had a 20-year operating lease on the Expo Center with four five-year renewal options extending through 2038, according to Springfield Business Journal reporting at the time. No fee from the city for managing the Expo Center was provided to Hammons, but the company collects concession revenues.
JQH Hotels filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June 2016. As part of bankruptcy court proceedings for Hammons’ estate, Georgia-based Atrium Hospitality has assumed management over all 35 of his hotels, and Kimberlin said he’s hopeful to start a dialogue between Atrium and city officials. However, he’s had no discussions with anyone from Atrium at this time and is uncertain how the management contract will ultimately play out.
“I think they’re in the middle of what they got their hands on,” he said. “It’s kind of like the dog that caught the car. They have a lot of stuff to figure out.”
City of Springfield Economic Development Manager Sarah Kerner said she’s unaware of any city discussions with Atrium about the Expo Center management contract. She added the city has no interest in ownership of the car park or in pursuing any contractual changes at this time.
Sheri Smith, president of Texas-based WiseHive Public Relations LLC, which handles public communications for Atrium Hospitality, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
Convention space in the city will be growing by about 10,000 feet later this year as DoubleTree by Hilton expands on the north side. Kimberlin said the approximate total of nearly 300,000 square feet when including combined larger meeting space options at DoubleTree, University Plaza Hotel, Springfield Expo Center, Oasis Hotel & Convention Center, Ozark Empire Fairgrounds and Event Center, and White River Conference Center, is not enough to attract big events in today’s competitive market.
Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, said he was involved in discussions regarding the Hunden report in 2016, and is still hopeful downtown may someday get a convention center. The report recommended a 200-room hotel connected to the Expo Center. And with project announcements for Hotel Vandivort’s 48-room expansion expected to open early next year and a new 98-room Tru by Hilton hotel coming in May 2019, Worley said that size of a facility isn’t unrealistic.
“It’s bigger, but it’s by no means big,” he said. “The number of rooms they proposed is reasonable and is something that could be attainable now.”
The city’s Kerner said the vacant city-owned land by the Expo Center remains an opportunity for a public-private partnership, but nothing is imminent.
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