Leaders attempting to settle debate on the new OKC Convention Center
Filed by Ben Allen in Feature.
January 28, 2013
MAPS 3 includes upgrades to the Oklahoma River and surrounding areas, a street car system, and an expansive public park, among other projects. But few in this latest MAPS have attracted as much attention, and criticism, as the convention center. Perhaps it’s the quarter of a billion dollar price tag. Or maybe it’s that a convention center doesn’t fit the strict definition of a public good – like sidewalks, or a street car.
Despite recently celebrating its 40th birthday, the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City doesn’t really show signs of age. The conference rooms look clean and sharp, with all the necessary amenities. Ditto for the Ballroom. But, according to David Todd, that’s not enough, considering what groups bring in.
“They’ve got LED lighting. They’ve got plasma TVs, computers. They require internet access. All kinds of things like that.”
Todd is managing MAPS for the city. Newer facilities are entering the 21st century, with much more consideration for changing technology. He says even with the benefit of hindsight, they probably wouldn’t have changed much as the walls rose from the ground.
“Well I think in ’72, they did get it right. Like I said, the convention business evolves. And that’s one thing I heard in these meetings, is that the convention business has evolved from lots of exhibit space to now more meeting rooms.”
On top of the shifting demands, Todd and others insist because of its downtown location, the Cox Center is boxed in. And they say they can’t expand up because of weight limits with an underground garage. The new convention center is expected to go due west of the Chesapeake Energy Arena, with the Myriad Gardens to its north.
“We can attract larger shows, we can attract more shows. We’ve got to look at where we want to go. Not just where we are today, we need to look down the road and see what Oklahoma City wants to be.”
That’s Tim Linville, director of sales and marketing at the convention center. He says they turn away events on a regular basis, sometimes because of space, sometimes because loading in other shows takes longer than usual at the current site. Michael Carrier with the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau echoes Tim.
“Show A is here for three days and then show B follows it in. We’re losing that day and a half that show B could be here because of the challenges of load in and load out.”
Booked solid are the words you hear, no matter who you ask. Everything they can get out of the building, they are. But this sounds like a space race. Tim says there’s a different way of looking at it.
“We know about a lot of the markets that we compete directly with are all building new facilities.”
Still, space came up time and time again.
“For that event to grow, they need more space.”
“More unobstructed, flat floor space.”
“It’s overall space.”
And space is no doubt a large part of the competition factor.
Does Michael fear some of the additions going empty?
“I don’t have any fear of that.”
What about Tim?
“You’ve always got concerns but my thoughts are we can do a lot more. The data generally backs me up. Once you get people to come here, they really like it and they have a good experience.”
Direct convention spending totaled nearly 175 million dollars the last three years, and rough estimates show that number jumping at least 90 million. And there’s still indirect spending, like entertainment, restaurants and more.
But how did the city decide a convention center should make it onto the MAPS 3 list? Here’s Roy Williams of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.
“The study was actually done to look at what are Oklahoma City’s strengths and weaknesses as it relates to convention business.”
It wasn’t the only piece of evidence, but it’s the most prominent one. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, as expected, used it to make the case for expansion. And the Oklahoman drew from it when endorsing the plan in a March 2009 editorial.
“What does it take to do that? So they didn’t give us a sales pitch. This isn’t a sales document, saying go out and do this it’s the next big thing. If you really want economic development, you oughta do this. That’s not what this was. This was a study of how do you move from point A to point B.”
There’s mixed conclusions in the report…many local and regional conferences say they would use more space. But dreams of national conferences may just be that, few said they would be interested in Oklahoma City. You’re going to have to travel to the Chamber’s office if you want to see the report in full though. Roy Williams says transparency may not be the best principle here.
“I think that people feel that there is something being kept from them. There’s nothing being kept from them. What is being kept from is empowering your competitors to beat you by giving [them] important information.”
The study will remain private, and may never go public. Still Roy Williams says the relevant information is out there.
“They don’t know how the management of the entity works, they don’t know how incentives work, they don’t know about infrastructure. So there’s a lot of stuff in the study that the average person is not aware of.”
Critics of the convention center back in 2009 say they’re largely satisfied with the plan. And on the concerns the facility won’t fill up, no pessimism. Either confidence, or a wait and see approach.
By the end of this year, a conceptual plan for the new convention center is due, with the first shovels digging in spring 2016. They’ll have room to expand to the west. Hopes remain high they need that space, and the center becomes another source of pride for Oklahomans.