Monday, June 30, 2008

Metro gets head start in booking for proposed convention center

Bureau recruits conventions for 2013, beyondBy MICHAEL CASS • Staff Writer (Tennessean) • June 30, 2008 It won't open for a few years and hasn't even been fully approved yet, but the Music City Center has already booked its first convention. The Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention has agreed to hold its annual meeting at the proposed new downtown convention center in June 2013 — and again in 2019. R. Clark Logan Jr., the Baptist group's vice president for business and finance and convention manager, said his organization is confident the new center is on schedule. "We've been given every assurance it is," Logan said. "We feel pretty good about it." Booking space several years in advance is the way of the conventions-and-meetings world. But the aggressive push by the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau — with Mayor Karl Dean's blessing — also puts extra pressure on city officials and contractors to make sure the Music City Center opens on time. If all goes well, the $595 million facility will open sometime in 2012. Supporters say it would allow Nashville to compete for 70 percent of the convention market, while the current Nashville Convention Center, with less than one-third the exhibit space, competes for 20 percent to 30 percent. For now, the Convention & Visitors Bureauis booking groups for March 2013 at the earliest to give the massive construction project some wiggle room. "The best window to grab some business for 2013 and even beyond is right now," said Butch Spyridon, the bureau's president. The Metro Development and Housing Agency hired a team of architects last week to design the convention center. Construction firms and facility planners were already on board. But the project still needs final approval from the Metro Council. Dean is expected to send the council a financing plan early next year, with city debt to be paid off by revenues from various taxes and fees targeting tourists. Rich Riebeling, Dean's finance chief, said the bureau's strategy is sound. "If you don't start booking now, you'll miss out on a lot of stuff that's coming up," he said. Bureau offers 'outs' The city is hedging its bets somewhat, however. The Convention & Visitors Bureauis giving convention groups some chances to pull out of their commitments if the city's timetable is derailed. If the council doesn't approve the financing, architects don't finish their designs and construction workers don't break ground by next summer, the groups will "have some outs," Spyridon said. If that were to happen, the Southern Baptists would move their 2013 convention to Baltimore, where they're planning to go in 2014, and meet in Nashville in 2014 instead, Logan said. Spyridon said the existing convention center wouldn't be able to accommodate the group, which can be as large as 12,000 Baptist "messengers." Spyridon said the CVB has made pitches for 16 conventions to nine groups, including the Southern Baptists. The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance has committed to meet at the Music City Center in 2018, while the American Academy of General Dentistry is looking at Nashville or Toronto for 2013. It probably will be too late to book large groups for 2012 by the time the city knows whether the convention center will be ready by then. But Spyridon said he would look to bring in multiple smaller groups, whose combined size could fill the facility. In the meantime, the existing convention center has booked meetings as far out as 2016 and continues to beat the bushes nationally, Executive Director Charles Starks said. Those meetings would be able to move to the new facility or stay in the existing one if the city decided to keep it for smaller conventions, Starks said. "We're still making sure the current one gets filled," he said. A task force that studied the need for a new convention center in 2006 said the existing building's economic impact was $92 million a year. The group said the proposed facility would generate an additional $700 million annually, based on bringing in 1 million more people who would spend $700 each over three days on hotel rooms, food and other items.

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