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Opinion: Convention Center Hotel Cancellation Worst Downtown News of 2014

Walker Evans Walker Evans Opinion: Convention Center Hotel Cancellation Worst Downtown News of 2014Rendering by The DLR Group, provided courtesy of Wagenbrenner Development.
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We’re not quite half way through 2014, but I’m going to go ahead and call it. The decision made last week by the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (FCCFA) to abandon a massive private development expansion is going to be the biggest blow to Downtown Columbus in 2014.

It’s also the biggest Downtown letdown since Governor Kasich cancelled the 3C corridor rail project (which would have had a Convention Center station) in 2010.

Actually, it’s probably the worst news to hit the Convention Center area since 1976. That was the year that the demolition of Union Station began, and local leaders exhibited extreme shortsightedness in nailing the coffin closed on passenger rail service in Columbus.

Echoes of similar shortsightedness are ringing again loudly in 2014 as local leaders have decided that it’s in the best interest of the Convention Center and Downtown Columbus to turn away large-scale mixed-use hotel development that would bring additional jobs, hotel rooms, retail and vibrancy to the core of our city.

Instead, our elected and appointed officials have chosen to spend $125 million (that will be paid for through bed taxes) on a much smaller renovation project that would add 36,000 square feet of space to the 1.7 million square foot Convention Center (a 2.1 percent increase in total space) and give the rest of the building a modern makeover. The renovation has yet to be approved by Columbus City Council, and hopefully it gets rejected.

After the leadership at the convention center requested private development proposals, and received four of them (we featured two of them, HERE and HERE), the lack of rational reasoning why the proposed projects would be abandoned are leaving locals scratching their heads. Especially with the economic environment for development being hot right now and private funding being already lined up to break ground quickly.

Some have speculated that the construction of a new hotel would compete directly with the FCCFA-owned Hilton hotel, which took the organization 10 years to figure out a funding model and construct. But even with the 500 rooms that The Hilton has added, Columbus still ranks dead-last for total number of connected convention rooms when measured against peer regional cities such as Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville. Columbus needs more hotel rooms if it wants bigger conventions like the Democratic and Republican national meetings that the city has recently applied for.

Some have pointed out that the private-development expansion would have removed approximately 70,000 square feet of space (4.1% of the total 1.7 million square feet of space). That certainly would not be a benefit for the Convention Center, which already is too small for some larger events. But that could easily be remedied with expansions to other parts of the building. As Brent Warren pointed out in March, there are multiple wasted space opportunities around the building where expansions are possible. His article doesn’t even take into account the massive surface parking lot to the east of the Convention Center where an expansion could grow convention space by 50 to 100 percent in the long term, or the idea of growing vertically over top of the mostly single-story building.

Others have speculated that the termination of the project was purely political. The proposed development was originated by local private developers and therefore may not have gotten the blessings of certain local leaders, and the cancellation could have come from those who felt left out of the loop during the process. If true, that would be incredibly unfortunate that bruised egos could trump the needs of our growing city.

Regardless of whatever the reason(s) may be, the fact remains that the project cancellation is bad news for Downtown, bad news for convention-goers, bad news for residents, bad news for The Short North, bad news for The North Market, bad news for Experience Columbus, bad news for Nationwide Insurance and other Downtown employers, bad news for the growing vibrancy of High Street, and bad news for our local leadership who have chosen to wear this black eye. Barring some sort of major “Act of God” catastrophe in the second half of this year, this is undoubtably the worst news for Downtown Columbus of 2014.

So… with the worst news of 2014 out of the way, is there an early contender for the best news of 2014?

That all depends on whether or not local leaders are willing to reverse this decision and put this private development project back on track. If you want to voice your opinion on this decision, call or email the board members of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, call or email Columbus City Council members, and call or email the office of Mayor Michael Coleman.

For ongoing discussion on this project, CLICK HERE to visit our Messageboard.

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  • RellekOTE

    I can’t agree more… I, as many others on this forum, are die-hard fans of Columbus and want to see every aspect of this city improved. While there are many exciting projects going on throughout the city, this project, in my opinion, would have kept the momentum going for the better and would bring so much additional opportunity for expansion of the convention market. We are way too behind in this, and all this current proposal does is sets us up for failure. I truly hope this does not get approved as proposed.

    • I guess my biggest question at the end of the day… is why can’t we have both project happen? We could literally have our cake and eat it too.

      1. Let the private developers build an amazing hotel/retail addition on the north end.

      2. Renovate the interior of the existing Convention Center.

      3. Add 100,000 square feet of new space onto a different section of he Convention Center. There’s room behind the Drury Inn to do that.

      We’re never going to get the DNC or RNC or other big events if we’re not willing to think bigger.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if we lose the Arnold in a few years because of our inability to grow by significant measures to accommodate.

  • RellekOTE

    Clarification: I want to see every aspect that needs improvement be improved. So much of this city needs no improvement. :)

  • Pretty much sums up my sentiment. There was really no legitimate reason that this was canceled. It is hard to imagine a worse development decision than this one, and seems completely tone deaf as to the convention authority’s very own stated goal.

  • It seems pretty obvious that the Convention Authority is on an island with this choice. I still don’t understand why they went to developers asking for these proposals if it seems like it was a forgone conclusion that they were never going that route.

    Is there honestly anything that a very large group of us, Columbusonians can do at this point to convince an extremely short-sighted board, that is not thinking for the greater good, to change their minds? (aside from writing an excellent article on the Columbus information website)

  • Jason Powell

    I worry most about losing The Arnold. It is already bursting at the seams. They literally utilize every nook and cranny of that place already. Sooner or later, because of these space constraints, this city may lose one of its most prominent festivals/events that brings a ton of recognition. I think we are lucky to still have it now to begin with. A 10% bump in space is not going to cut it. If this proposal moves forward, the convention authority will be sorry it did.

  • JMan

    Right on.

  • Pablo

    Isn’t the Arnold on the ropes now with the loss of Vets?

    • The Arnold is holding some events at the Ohio Expo Center where there is plenty of room to grow.

      • I can’t imagine that’s in any way ideal to be so far disconnected between venues and far from the Downtown hotels.

        • The Arnold uses hotels all around the metro area, even outside 270. One (or 10) new hotels downtown wouldn’t bring all their attendees downtown.

          • But wouldn’t you agree that it would certainly help to add another 500-room hotel attached to the convention center along with more space in another part of the building?

            The interior renovation sounds nice, but it’s ultimately just a plan to tread water. Not exactly what I’d consider worthy of attracting and retaining more conventions and large scale events in the long term.

          • There needs to be demand for a hotel. If those 500 rooms (likely 500 different rooms at other, older nearby hotels – probably not the Hilton) aren’t full except for during those big events, then rates will be depressed and one of those older properties may even close.

            Renovating the convention center isn’t merely treading water – it’s a constant arms race that Columbus hasn’t played at for a long time. Cleveland and Nashville just opened brand new centers. It’s the logical next step to growth.

          • From an interview with Experience Columbus CEO Brian Ross in May 2013: “I can tell you right now, when you look at the ten cities that we compete against, our convention facility is probably in the top three or four. When you look at our hotel rooms package around the convention center, we’re in the bottom three or four. So we can still add more hotel space, even with the addition of the Hilton. The Hilton just got us to where we can start competing again. The Convention Center’s been running at about 55% occupancy. To get it to run at 72% — which is what we consider to be optimal, we’re going to have to increase our hotel rooms. So that’s something we’re looking at down the road. We first have to fill in what we’ve just brought in to the market, so that’s our immediate goal.”

            MORE: http://www.columbusunderground.com/new-experience-columbus-ceo-brian-ross-sees-much-potential-for-the-growth-of-columbus-tourism

  • Posole

    What were the details? How much of the project would the county have had to foot? What were the projections for occupancy and convention attendance?

  • I’ll go on record as saying this is the biggest over-reaction of 2014! Seriously, life will go on and Columbus will continue to thrive. Is it a disappointment? Sure. Is it the end of the world for Columbus? No. Get a sense of perspective folks.

    • Truth be told, Columbus is in great shape. For the most part, we see a stream of constant good news. We’re fortunate that we don’t have some of the problems that other cities have.

      But in turn that means that a development like this being cancelled qualifies as the worst news of the year. I don’t think that’s an over reaction.

      Any other thoughts on what would surpass this as the worst news of the year thus far?

      • I don’t know. I just don’t think this is that big of a deal. If this is the worst news Columbus has had in 2014, I think we are in pretty good shape. Maybe it just has to do with having lived in this town for 50+ years. I can think of a lot of stuff – good and bad – that has happened and I don’t think this is an overall game changer. I agree it is a disappointment. I would have loved to see it happen and I thought the ideas and concepts they put out were really amazing, but I view it more as an opportunity deferred than an opportunity lost.

        • I completely agree that if this is the worst news we’re still in pretty good shape. ;)

          And I’ll agree that it’s an opportunity deferred if-and-when the same type of private development can occur somewhere else nearby. Of course, that’s easier said than done, so it’s just wishful thinking at this point.

    • chaserdanger

      Eh. People like this person are the reason no one thinks “big” in this area in terms of anything in development and improvement for this city.

      “Ive lived here 50 years” well thats great. I personally think this is a game changer. Potential to have another large hotel with teeming retail attached and bringing the convention center into an ever more urban environment.

      Its short sighted opinions like this that keep Columbus lagging behind others when they could potentially be on par with Austin or Nashville or other growing mid size cities.

  • mbeaumont

    Totally agree with your assessment here, Walker. This project would have been a game changer, and I only pray that there’s something that can still be done to change their minds.

  • GCrites80s

    Which massive surface lot to the east of the Convention Center are you referring to, Walker?

  • RonDo

    It sure does seem like Columbus wants to remain in the shadow of cities such as Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and the like instead of the one casting it.

    If Columbus wants to play and compete in the region, it needs to step up. Columbus, slowly, is getting where the other cities have already been for awhile.

    If I was the Arnold and was looking to move, it would be Indy.

  • Ezmerelda74

    My husband and his friends annual attend a gaming convention in Indianapolis, GenCon. That convention is quickly outgrowing the city of Indianapolis and the available beds.

    Seems like we should be growing to accommodate the growth of The Arnold, and the hope of getting additional conventions like GenCon that are continuing to grow as well.

  • Twixlen

    Why is Columbus so weirdly short-sighted about certain things? There’s almost this fear of being *too* metropolitan – with real public transportation, thinking in scale when it comes to growing public venues (that aren’t paid for with taxpayer bucks), etc.

    As for this being the biggest disappointment – I’m pretty bummed about the downtown zoo as well. I thought that was a real game changer.

    • urbanenthusiast

      Funny that you mentioned it, but I too think that Columbus has an inferiority complex and a fear of being too metropolitan. I think that there is a schism between between Columbusites who grew up here or in a smaller Ohio places and don’t travel much, and those who have lived in larger US cities and travel regularly.

  • drtom1234

    Walker, although I agree with you on most things, and I also am a bit disappointed that this project isn’t happening, I think this article is perhaps a trifle histrionic. As I understand it, this project was never solicited by the convention authority, it was initiated by Wagenbrenner. The convention authority then, by law, had to do an RFP, which brought in the competing projects. Based on your reporting, the convention center would have lost 70,000 square feet of meeting room, which I presume was what killed the plan. There has been numerous suggestions about ways to make up for this shortfall, including adding space within the hotel itself(presumably a nontenable idea since it wouldn’t be owned by the authority), building a whole new floor on top of the convention center(an interesting idea, but I have no idea what it would cost, and I’m not sure the center could even physically even support another floor), using the lot to the east of the center(isn’t that where the fieldhouse in the columbus 2010 plan is eventually supposed to go?), or building on other non-continguous spaces(making it difficult on conventioneers and are those spots even owned by the authority?). But as best I can tell, the whole idea of a convention center is to house as many people as possible, and, like a casino, keep them inside as much as possible. That is, I presume, the mandate of the convention authority, and not to improve the cityscape of what is, let’s all admit, a thriving area of the city. In addition, there is still apparently a plan for an addition full service hotel just north of the convention center to be built in the future.

    As Twixlen said above, the loss of the downtown zoo for me is the biggest disappointment. That kind of public investment in the scioto penninsula would have, IMO, spurred development of Franklinton and the penninsula itself, an area that is in far more need of development than the Short North and Arena district areas.

    Walker, I would very much like to see an interview with Bill Jennison, the executive director of the convention facilities, here on Columbus underground, so he can explain their decision. Perhaps it was a stupid and short sighted decision, as most here seem to agree, or perhaps there were considerations behind the decision that might make more sense once explained. Either way, it would be nice to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

    • We’re reaching out for interviews with a few different folks involved.

      The Zoo cancellation is certainly bad news as well. But I don’t think it was quite as bad of news. Just my 2 cents though.

  • superglue


  • Jason Powell

    The thought that the purpose of convention centers is to keep as many people inside as possible seems a bit archaic to me. I mean, I get the reason for it but things change and maybe the convention business should change too. The Wagenbrenner proposal may not only have been a game changer for High Street but also for how this city conducts conventions. How is that for a game changer – to be able to offer a different experience.

    To me, having a three block blank wall on a convention center is not too much different than having a surface parking lot. Both contribute next to nothing to the streetscape and vitality of a street. We are talking about High Street here – THE commercial spine of the city. Go big or go home.

  • drtom1234

    “To me, having a three block blank wall on a convention center is not too much different than having a surface parking lot. Both contribute next to nothing to the streetscape and vitality of a street. We are talking about High Street here – THE commercial spine of the city. Go big or go home.”

    A point I made when arguing that the planned Edwards building near Gay Street was far too small for that space at seven stories. But again, the convention center is located in arguably the most vital area in town, between the bustling Short North, and the continually expanding Arena District. The vitality of the city is not going to fall based on the temporary failure to build one hotel and the presumably permanent inability to build 22,000 square feet of retail space. Yes, it would have been a cool addition, but it’s hardly the most vital thing the city has going. As I said, I suspect, but don’t know, that the loss of nearly 5% of the convention center space made this a non-starter from the beginning. What I would like to hear from those involved is the thought process behind the decision.

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