Convention hotel: If you build it, will they come?

By Steve Lackmeyer

The Oklahoman

 

Before agreeing to do a deal with Oklahoma City to build a 600-room convention hotel, Omni Hotels owner Robert Rowling took a look at the site from the top floor at Devon Energy Center.

 

What he saw, he says, was “scary.” Even with most of the area cleared of dilapidated warehouses, junk and debris, the area between the Chesapeake Energy Arena and Interstate 40 is desolate with no restaurants, no shops, and no life whatsoever.

 

Rowling is gambling on the city fulfilling its promises of building a new convention center, park and streetcar system, which will combine with the Omni to create an area filled with restaurants and shops. The design of the hotel itself will be aimed at taking the first step with bringing such life to the area.

 

“We want to activate the street and bring in restaurants and retail,” Rowling said. “A sign of our success will be other restaurateurs and retail coming in around us.”

 

The Oklahoma City Council on Tuesday voted 7-2 to take a similar gamble with a complicated mix of public assistance totaling $85.4 million with millions more to be spent on bond financing.

 

Their 90-minute deliberation included a report by Thomas Hazinski, managing director of HVS, indicating the city would fall short in their ambitions if they build a $283 million convention center without it adjoining a large headquarters hotel.

 

Hazinski quoted reports from the city's convention and visitors bureau that it had lost an average of 23 events that would have generated 72,669 room nights due to a lack of space or availability at the Cox Convention Center. The bureau reported an average of 16 events are lost each year due to a lack of a headquarters hotel that can provide room blocks.

 

If just 25 percent of those events could be recovered, Hazinski said, it would add an average of 10 events a year with an additional 28,111 room nights. With the Omni, the forecast suggests the city could see 171 events a year compared to 146 without a hotel. The difference in attendance would average 84,600 people a year.

 

Net new spending, meanwhile is forecast to average $137.6 million with the Omni, compared to $62.4 million without a headquarters hotel. Rowling, meanwhile, estimated the hotel will create 450 new jobs.

 

Criticism and hope

 

The impact report, however, isn't without criticism. Councilman Ed Shadid, who has led opposition to the hotel deal and the construction of the convention center, said Hazinski's report left out factors listed in a study commissioned by the Greater Oklahoma Chamber before the 2009 MAPS 3 election.

 

That study listed a lack of a modern convention center and headquarters hotel as issues preventing Oklahoma City from competing for more visitors. But the study also noted lack of airport access and direct flights to cities, shortcomings in public transit and extremes in weather conditions as other considerations hurting the city with meeting planners.

 

“We also don't have the CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) budget to do all this,” Shadid said. “That is going to inhibit some of the numbers you say we will see coming to Oklahoma City.”

 

A morning prayer at City Hall by Shane Hall, pastor at First Southern Baptist Church in south Oklahoma City, provided his congregant and Councilman Todd Stone with anecdotal reason to believe the hotel and convention center will boost the city's fortunes.

 

Stone told fellow council members Hall is on the committee that decides where to book the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting. The 2017 conference, held in Phoenix, drew more than 9,500 members, guests and exhibitors to the city.

 

“He's always wanted to bring it to Oklahoma City,” Stone said. “They can't do it. We don't have the resources. But he said ‘If this thing goes through, I can't wait to try to bring them here. They all want to come here. They talk about the resurgence of Oklahoma City and they love it.'”

 

Michael Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, agreed the conference is on a list of events he and his staff will recruit in partnership with Omni.

 

“That's the kind of convention we can bring in with these facilities,” Carrier said. “Being close to Chesapeake Arena, we can work with the Thunder about using that for some of the functions. These are conversations we can now have.”

 

Carrier shares Rowling's belief that restaurants and retail will pop up in the blighted area between downtown and I-40. Construction is already underway on Scissortail Park and the streetcar and is set to start on the convention center by March 2018.

 

Two areas showing promise for development, he confirmed, are the former Fred Jones Ford dealership south of the Myriad Gardens and just west of the future Omni, and a large swath of land acquired by Strawberry Fields developer Pat Salame west of the future park.

 

“This is a game-changer,” Carrier said. “Having the convention center product and a convention center headquarters hotel to go with it are the first two things meeting planners look at. We've got a lot of the other aspects in place, but more is coming. You have to have a reason for retail and other things to be here. I think we're going to have that.”