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Center of Attention: Feasibility study of convention center near Bass Pro pinpoints $1.1B impact

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A feasibility study conducted by Hunden Strategic Partners laid out recommendations for a convention center and hotel package near Bass Pro Shops that the Chicago-based firm predicted would have a $1.1 billion economic impact over a 20-year period.

The 136-page report was released Feb. 22, and it marks the firm’s third study of its kind conducted for the city dating back to 2011. A 2016 report considered the Battlefield Road and Highway 65 area, the Glenstone Avenue and Kearney Street corridor, and downtown next to the Springfield Expo Center for other convention center sites. Of the three, downtown was considered the best option by Hunden.

Tracy Kimberlin, president and CEO of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, which requested the third Hunden report, said all convention center options remain on the table.

“Downtown has not been eliminated. Matter of fact, no location has been eliminated,” he said. “Of the options, what we’re looking at is Bass Pro and downtown.”

The CVB, the city of Springfield and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce are among community partners involved in the discussion for a large-scale convention center and hotel complex. Hunden was paid $79,188 for its work, Kimberlin said, with the city contributing $15,000 to the bill and the CVB funding the remainder.

Exploration
In the new Hunden report, the authors recommended construction of a 100,600-square-foot convention center and a connected or adjacent hotel. The report also calls for two other hotels near the Bass Pro campus at Campbell Avenue and Sunshine Street and within walking distance of the convention center. Those include a 160- to 180-room Delta Hotels property or Embassy Suites and a 100- to 120-room Hampton Inn or Fairfield Inn. The main hotel is recommended with 220-300 rooms with 14,000 square feet of amenities including a ballroom, seven meeting rooms and a boardroom.

“We’re interested in exploring it to see if it makes sense,” Jack Wlezien, Bass Pro communications director, said of the report recommendations.

He said Bass Pro has not been part of the convention center discussion prior to the new Hunden report and has had no formal follow-up conversations with city, chamber or CVB officials.

“We haven’t formed any conclusions on it,” Wlezien said. “I don’t think there’s any rush to create any action until we’ve thought through all the scenarios.”

Kimberlin said the report serves as a first step. Next, officials with the city and Bass Pro will need to determine if such a project would feasibly fit in with the campus, which includes the outdoor retailer’s flagship store and Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium. WOW brought in 1.6 million visitors its first year after reopening in September 2017, spurring the CVB’s request for the study, Kimberlin said.

“It will be a process,” he said, adding Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris is the type of person who thinks things through very thoroughly. “It will also have to be a public-private partnership, and those can be very difficult to put together.”

According to the report, funding recommendations include the creation of a Bass Pro community improvement district with a 1 percent tax and up to a 2 percent increase in the city hotel tax, currently at 5 percent citywide. The study also projected the recommended convention center and hotel would generate more than $638 million in direct, net new spending within the city over 20 years.

Wlezien said he wasn’t sure if Bass Pro had available property on its campus for adding future hotels, if that was an option they wanted to pursue.

“That’s one of the things we’re looking at now,” he said, adding logistical, operational and financial considerations all need to be made. “Do we have room for all those things, along with ongoing parking needs?”

Hotel developer Earl Steinert of EAS Investment Enterprises Inc. questions how many more hotels can be built in the city. With last year’s additions – such as the 92-room Vib Springfield, and new properties coming this year, including a 98-room Tru by Hilton and a second 48-room property for Hotel Vandivort – Steinert characterizes Springfield as “overbooked.”

Over 500 hotel rooms were added in the last two years to now nearly 6,000 rooms in Springfield, according to Springfield Business Journal research. Another nearly 240 rooms are expected to come online this year.

Steinert, known for building Hampton Inns, said he’s not interested in developing a hotel in the Bass Pro area but understands the appeal with WOW as a big draw. Steinert also has concerns about how much business hotels in that area could attract in the slower period for the industry, which he said is November through February.

Economic vitality
A convention center falls under broader efforts of the city to boost economic vitality – one of the priorities of City Council, said Cora Scott, Springfield’s director of public information and civic engagement. But she added discussions on the topic of a convention center in the Bass Pro area have been “exploratory,” noting the city has no favored preference of where such a complex should be at this time.

“It’s pretty early looking at a project of this size and scope,” she said, adding the city has no timeline for discussions with Bass Pro.

Part of that economic vitality comes from travel and tourism, which Kimberlin said has risen in recent years in Springfield, reaching a record 1.38 million overnight visitors in 2018. Room sales were at $117.7 million in 2018, up 6.3 percent from $110.7 million in 2017, he added.

However, he said the city’s convention market has been flat during that time due to competition from outside the area. When including combined larger meeting space options in town, Kimberlin has said Springfield has approximately 300,000 square feet of total convention space available.

The report recommends the creation of a public-private ownership and partnership model, through which the city of Springfield would be the owner and a third-party independent manager would be the operator. For example, Kimberling pointed to the downtown Springfield Expo Center, which is owned by the city and managed by Atrium Hospitality LP.

Kimberlin said Bass Pro could be a possible manager but noted a third-party advantage would in effect bring a sales team as part of the management group to market the facility.

While all options remain on the table, including the vacant 1.7-acre parcel downtown, Kimberlin said the Bass Pro area would certainly provide a unique convention center setting.

“There’s only one Bass Pro campus in the world like what we have here,” he said. “If there were a convention center on that campus done in the Bass Pro style, it would be something that no other city had.”

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