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Competitive assessment's impact still unclear

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A study designed to boost convention business in Springfield is nearly complete, and city leaders are now considering a follow-up report examining the return on millions of dollars in investment the consultant group said is needed to make the Expo Center area more attractive. And it may be months before city leaders decide how much, if anything, would be spent to lure conventions to town.

An early draft of the study prepared by Chicago-based destination development consultant Hunden Strategic Partners was released in May, and it confirmed what Tracy Kimberlin, president of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he’s been saying for years.

“It comes down to facilities,” Kimberlin said. “It’s one thing to say it but another to have an objective party come in and say it.”

The 185-page report calls for city leaders to “go big or go home” seeking public investments of $24 million to $55 million and private investment of more than $53 million.

The study recommends upgrades to the Springfield Expo Center, a public-private investment in creating an entertainment district connecting the exhibition space to restaurants and shops a few blocks to the west, and the construction of a long-delayed hotel connecting the Expo and a city parking garage on St. Louis Street.

At $10 million to $17 million, Expo Center improvements were the largest single public investment suggested. The study recommends razing the Expo Center’s western portion, formerly Sears, and replacing it with a ballroom, meeting rooms and a kitchen to attract more conventioneers.

Even if improvements were made, competition is tough, according to the study. With businesses and organizations in the region having a wealth of options from Kansas City to St. Louis to Branson, the city’s outdated reputation may still be too much to overcome, the report said.

“If I was in the business community, I’d be paying attention because this can have a huge economic impact on businesses, particularly in downtown,” Kimberlin said.

City Manager Greg Burris said the 13-member assessment committee – assembled to review the report and offer recommendations – would meet once more before report author Rob Hunden unveiled the final study, likely in early August.

Burris described the report as “98 percent” complete, short of some fact-checking and comparable convention data for nearby cities.

Burris said it was too soon to say what decisions would come as a result of the report.

“That’s what the committee is wrestling with now,” he said, adding he wasn’t surprised by anything in the study.

The $39,000 report cost was shared equally by the city, the CVB and JQH Hotels Inc. Justin Harris, general counsel for JQH Hotels and member of the assessment committee, said a joint effort of the three parties would be critical to any development plan.

Harris interpreted the report to say a hotel development alone was not going to be enough.
He said plans for the proposed Embassy Suites Hotel east of the Expo have not been scrapped but were still on hold.

A deadline for construction of a 240-room full-service hotel had been set by the city for Sept. 30, 2008, and then extended to April 1, 2010, following an agreement between the company and the city that offered the vacant land to JQH Hotels with the promise of a hotel.

Harris said community and business leaders and residents need to determine how much of the bill the public is willing to pick up before moving forward, and he questioned the general appetite for Expo improvements or the desire for an entertainment district. City officials said they’d have to consider a new funding source for any improvements.

The Hunden study also recommended upgrades to University Plaza Hotel. After completing exterior work in recent years, Harris said JQH Hotels was considering interior improvements.

Harris said it was possible that if city leaders didn’t want to spend tens of millions of dollars on Expo Center upgrades, that management of the center could be transferred to the city. He said the study points out that it’s common for cities to lose money on their exposition or convention centers, but many do so on the promise of bringing a wide range of groups to town that a private operator such as JQH might not seek.

Kimberlin said a follow-up report should be considered to see what the return on investment would yield the city if it decides to move forward with plans, but Harris said that was not something JQH Hotels was interested in funding at this time.[[In-content Ad]]

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