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Consultant delivers final report on Expo property

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After an eight-month review, Chicago consultant Rob Hunden has recommended the city of Springfield make improvements to the Expo Center, review the facility’s management contract and consider wide-scale public and private investment to attract more events and visitors to the city.

Hunden unveiled the findings of his 185-page report to an audience of around 60, including city council members and Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and JQH Hotels & Resorts staff at an Aug. 2 meeting at University Plaza Hotel.

The report, which cost the city, the CVB and JQH Hotels $39,000, calls for more than $10 million in improvements to the west side of the Expo Center, a full-service hotel to be built on the vacant land and restaurant and entertainment options be brought into the area for a total public investment of up to $55 million and a private investment of more than $53 million.

Hunden’s presentation highlighted the study and provided information that members of the 13-seat competitive assessment committee had requested on regional convention centers. A question and answer session followed.

Hunden said improvements to the Expo Center and the construction of a full-service hotel with roughly 240 rooms just east of, and connected to, the facility, would be the best use of the 1.7 acres of land between the Expo and the adjacent car garage and the best way to lure conventioneers to Springfield. City officials have debated whether the city should buy back the land from JQH Hotels for $1 following a second missed deadline in April 2010 to begin construction of an Embassy Suites hotel on the site.

Hunden recommended the city review its contract with John Q. Hammons Hotels Management LLC, which is managing the Expo Center, in favor of an arrangement where the city could afford to book out-of-town business, regardless of whether the event generated enough money to cover expenses. Hunden said Hammons Hotels has only been motivated to generate events that turn a profit.

“With city-run convention centers, there’s not a profit motive per se,” Hunden said. “They can operate with a deficit because money is being generated locally.”

Citing Kansas City Convention Center event figures, Hunden said facility managers there have booked up to 10 times as many events per year as the Hammons group has for Springfield. The Springfield Expo Center has hosted roughly 40 events per year.

Mayor Jim O’Neal suggested the city buy back the vacant land next to the Expo Center soon and “sit still” before deciding to make any moves.
 
“We need to expand who we attract here without spending a great deal of money, which no one is ready to do,” O’Neal said.

Tracy Kimberlin, president of the Springfield CVB, said city leaders needed to make a quick decision because the competition won't wait.

“To stay where we are would be backing up because others are not going to stay where they are,” Kimberlin said of attracting convention business. “If we are not going to go down this road, the sooner we make that decision, the better.”

City Manager Greg Burris asked that the members of the task force remain in the group and be ready to study options as the city looks to commission a follow-up report that would explore the impact of following through on the report’s recommendations. At the meeting, none of the members objected to continuing in their roles. Burris said it could be possible that plans for the Expo and adjacent land could be implemented during a number of years.

Hunden said whatever the city decides to do, it should have its plans in place before opening up the land to requests for proposals.

“You don’t want to leave this to chance,” Hunden said.[[In-content Ad]]

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