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The condition of the city’s downtown convention hotels was characterized as “a major problem” by Tracy Kimberlin, President and CEO of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., during the June 13 Springfield City Council meeting.
Councilperson Richard Ollis queried Kimberlin on the matter following a discussion of the CVB’s annual contract with the city, which is up for a vote June 27.
“I’ve noticed that a couple of our hotels, one being The Q, looks like it may be shuttered,” Ollis said. “I walked through University Plaza the other day, and there were 55-gallon drums catching rainwater coming off the roof.”
Ollis asked if the convention facilities in those hotels were viable. The Q Hotel & Suites has been shuttered for 18 months, according to an unidentified employee who answered the phone at University Plaza and Convention Center, where The Q’s phone calls were being forwarded. University Plaza offers 47,000 square feet of space, including 35 meeting rooms, across the street from the Springfield Expo Center.
Of University Plaza, Kimberlin said, “Our biggest and used-to-be-best convention hotel is in a sad shape right now.”
Alpharetta, Georgia-based Atrium Hospitality LP owns University Plaza.
According to past Springfield Business Journal reporting, Atrium Hospitality in 2018 made a deal with the John Q. Hammons estate to liquidate Hammons’ hotels, operated as JQH Hotels & Resorts.
Kimberlin said the bankrupt Hammons estate stopped investing in the property, and upon its takeover, Atrium has not invested in the property, either.
“We have had several major problems with convention groups there,” Kimberlin said, citing leaky roofs and no hot water or air conditioning. “When you rent a hotel room, you really expect to have air conditioning and hot water working.”
He said Mayor Ken McClure and City Manager Jason Gage have been involved in discussions with Atrium.
“They’re saying at this point they are assessing what they are going to do with the property, whether to improve it or sell it,” Kimberlin said. “Hopefully, we’ll have that decision very soon, because something needs to happen.”
Michael Bloom, general manager of University Plaza, provided SBJ a statement following the council meeting, noting Atrium is exploring plans for capital improvements to enhance the facility.
“We value our collaborative relationship with the Springfield community as we create a welcoming environment for all,” he said, adding that he looks forward to continuing discussions with representatives of the city and the CVB.
Kimberlin told SBJ Atrium had recently rehired Bloom, who was at University Plaza in its heyday.
“He knows what needs to be done,” Kimberlin said. “He fully intends to do everything under his power to get that property back to where it needs to be. If he is given the resources, he can do that.”
Also at the meeting, Ollis asked about the shape of the Expo Center, a convention facility offering 112,000 square feet of contiguous space.
Kimberlin said, “Both are being used, but unfortunately, we hold our breath every time they are used that the groups are going to have a halfway decent experience while they are there.”
He added that problems with the physical plant and staffing have caused groups to leave. The United Methodist Church used to meet at the Expo Center annually in June, but because of problems like roof leaks, they have since moved to Branson.
Organizers of some 4,000-5,000 student members of Future Business Leaders of America almost opted out of the Expo Center after similar issues with their convention, but ultimately didn’t, Kimberlin said. Events at the Expo Center are overseen by University Plaza.
Kimberlin told SBJ that repairs, chiefly to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and the hot water system, will cost in the tens of millions, either for Atrium or for a potential buyer.
Ollis said, “I certainly hope Atrium is going to step up and take their properties to a livable level and hopefully beyond that, where we can then be confident and use that facility as we move forward.”
Kimberlin told council members University Plaza is a reflection on the city of Springfield to guests.
“Before people open a new business here, they’re going to visit,” Kimberlin said. “If they stay at University Plaza, it’s not going to be very pretty at this point.”
Kimberlin told SBJ the problem is serious because University Plaza has far more meeting space than anywhere else in Springfield. SBJ list research confirms it has the largest capacity of any Springfield hotel, with accommodations for up to 1,600 people at a sit-down meal.
He said DoubleTree by Hilton and Oasis Hotel & Convention Center, located on the city’s north side, are “fine facilities,” but their meeting space is limited.
“Any convention of any significant size really only has one choice,” he said.
Kimberlin told council he has shifted a lot of his energy toward promoting sports tourism as a replacement for convention business.
“I’ve worked very hard to try to get sports facilities here in Springfield improved, and we have checked off some boxes in that regard, and I’m hoping we can check off a couple more,” he said.
“Without a convention center, we need something.”
The CVB budget is set at nearly $4.2 million, and of that, about $3.3 million comes from the city’s hotel/motel tax.
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