Friday, December 18, 2009

Convention center search: Regional cities

Just to show how OKC is indeed falling behind in the convention center arms race, this post will be dedicated to the convention centers located in regional towns that we generally expect to be bigger and better than. This will be your cities like Tulsa and Omaha. Actually the full list of cities is: Tulsa, Wichita, Little Rock, Omaha, Albuquerque, Des Moines, and Shreveport. All of these cities have convention facilities that are better than what OKC can offer with the Cox Convention Center.

When you're looking at this from the standpoint of competition and you're wondering how we can let ourselves fall out of the top 100 US cities for convention business, this is the kind of thing you have to directly look at: How does OKC compare within the region? If not very well, there are problems. The bright side of competing in an evolving region is that competition brings more spotlight. People are getting past the "Don't they still ride horses everywhere in Oklahoma?" stage, but it helps that in the eyes of the convention industry the region is seen as a more competitive area, with emerging convention hubs like Omaha especially, and Little Rock, Wichita, and Tulsa to some extent you could even include NW Arkansas and Springfield.

Rogers, AR. City pop -- 38,829. Metro pop -- 420,876.
Yes, NW Arkansas. And Yes, this is a convention center, not a Target. See this is why I tend to dismiss NW Arkansas as a potential serious contender. I think it obviously has a ton of potential, but the leaders of all the different communities tend to be pretty set on keeping it the way it is -- a ton of different small cities. There is a lot of potential for NW Arkansas to emerge as a rapidly growing, economically prosperous metropolitan region -- but the lack of a clear, dominant city sort of takes the metropolitan out of the metro. Their convention center is no different. Its stats aren't bad though, and that's what OKC has to compete with.

Located in Rogers (which is at the heart of the Fayetteville-Bentonville-Springdale-Rogers-Buena Vista metro area), the John Q. Hammons Center features 125,000 sf, including a 42,000 sf ballroom (largest in Arkansas), and 41 breakout rooms. That gives it an edge over the Cox with the ballroom and in having more breakout rooms. The center has two different attached convention hotels (552 total rooms), another advantage over the Cox.

Obviously the overwhelmingly suburban nature of Rogers is going to hold it back from being a serious competitor with OKC. There is no major airport, no Amtrak access, and it's pretty out of the way unless someone is directly targeting Wal-Mart, headquartered in nearby Bentonville. The good news for Rogers is that a lot of companies ARE directly targeting Wal-Mart. Plus the U of Ark in nearby Fayetteville is also a huge draw. Even Rogers is getting its act together, building a new urbanist center (Pinnacle Hills Promenade) across the street from the Hammons Center. But it still isn't a real metropolitan area.

There is an identical convention center, also named John Q. Hammons Center, located in Springfield.

Wichita, KS. City pop - 344,284. Metro pop - 596,452.
That ugly round, cyan-colored thing is actually their convention center. Instead of calling it the circus, it's dubbed the Century II Center, with a total of 721,000 sf. That includes 198,000 sf of exhibit space and including 27 breakout rooms. It also recently turned 40 years old, making it comparable in that aspect to the Cox Center.

Wichita's convention center, however ugly and outdated, makes up with its new convention hotel -- the attached 303-room Hyatt. Rather amazing is that they actually have a section on the CVB website for "Wichita skeptics" where they try and convert Wichita haters by giving them a shopping trip or something..to Wichita. Kind of hard to believe they would go that far to acknowledge that Wichita kinda sucks, but you'd be surprised I guess.

Little Rock, AR. City pop -- 189,515. Metro pop -- 850,561.
The Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock is by all means, a smaller facility, though fairly immaculate. Very little information on it actually exists online. The Statehouse has 220,000 sf total, with about 84,000 sf in the contiguous "Governor's Halls." It includes an 18,000 sf ballroom. The ballroom was added in a 1999 renovation project that cost $15.4 million that added a total 120,000 sf. Its attached convention hotel is the Little Rock Peabody (an older hotel), with 418 rooms.

Honestly, Little Rock is a great city. Hard to beat what they've managed to do with horrible demographics. Their downtown has done well, largely a success built on taking a chance with streetcar, which has a stop at the Statehouse Convention Center. The site is surrounded by other hotels within walking distance as well as the well-known River Market neighborhood of Little Rock. Tough to comment on the overall urban planning of the convention center because it's pretty much the most boring convention center I've come across, nothing spectacularly good or bad. I do have a complaint about how the Peabody Hotel doesn't actually face any street, where they have it behind the convention center, along the Arkansas River.

Omaha, NE. City pop -- 436,648. Metro pop -- 837,925.
Omaha's convention center is a home-run in many regards. For $290 million ($216 million from the City), Omaha broke ground on a major convention center in 2001 and finished in 2005, and the 2nd phase was finished in 2006. The Qwest in Omaha has resembled a mixed-bag of successes and failures. Overall the convention center is shiny and new, has had a steady stream of business brought to "the O" as they call it there, and it is regarded as a great facility. It is a success from a convention standpoint, but it is a failure from a planning standpoint, as Downtown Omaha is completely separated from the facility which doesn't really connect to any urban fabric.

Think of the Qwest Center as a new version of the Cox Center. It is virtually the same size, 1.1 million sf -- doesn't feature as much space for meeting rooms, but has double the exhibit space and features a slightly larger basketball arena. Exhibition space amounts to 194,000 sf, meeting space 62,000 sf, and the arena holds 17,560 for a basketball game. The Qwest Arena is the home of Creighton University's venerable basketball program. Similarly to the Big 12 Basketball Tourney, the arena has hosted U.S. Summer Olympics trials in 2008 and will again in 2012--as well as NCAA beginning rounds. The #2 increase in convention industry after OKC is Omaha, so the convention center portion has been well received too. It also has a 450-room Hilton attached. The convention hotel is a bit small, and it looks even smaller (the rooms are tiny from what I've heard), so I'm not sure if they landed the best hotel amenities with their premium convention center. But they still spent $213 million ($290 million including private contributions) and got a 1.1 million sf facility.. considering that construction prices are back to about where they were 5 years ago, why can't we spend $280 million and get a similarly sized facility (that is all exhibition space)? We're talking about 500-600,000 sf for $280 million for MAPS 3, but I digress.

The biggest problem with the Qwest Center is how it interacts with the surrounding downtown area. It doesn't. I-480 separates it from the rest of downtown, and it isn't even connected to any of NoDo (a downtown neighborhood north of 480) due to the huge expanses of surface parking in front of it. The convention center doesn't really take advantage of the Missouri River frontage in the back either, divided by railroad tracks. The riverfront is a very underutilized park with a pavilion, some trails, and a huge parking lot. It is very poorly used space, from a planning perspective, lots of dead space, very little interaction with DT Omaha, or NoDo, or the Mighty Mo. Lots of squandered opportunity to spur infill between NoDo and the riverfront. In OKC, I think we expect to see an infill effect anytime we spend millions on downtown projects. What Omaha has done was design a major project in a way that they could have never expected an infill effect, which just seems like a waste of public resources. Yes, you need a convention facility, but you can also use it to spur development, and Omaha has not killed two birds with one stone in the way that most cities have. This convention center could have just as well gone out by Dodge Rd and I-680 and nobody in downtown would have known the difference.

Tulsa, OK. City pop -- 385,635. Metro pop -- 966,531.
Tulsa doesn't try to do too much with their convention center. Currently receiving a $50 million facelift from Vision 2025, it's a much smaller facility than the Cox Center, but it still has more exhibition space as well as the largest ballroom in the state, at 30,000 sf. The exhibition floor totals 102,600 sf, and when you add the 23 meeting rooms and the 8,900 seat arena, the facility has a total 227,000 sf -- 1/5th the size of the Cox Center -- but the key is that its footprint STILL has more exhibition space.

I mentioned that they've kept it very simple, and that's a good thing. The center really doesn't have a flashy design, it's not LEED-certified, and it doesn't have many of the special features that I can't even think of that some other centers have. They've also kept it simple from a site plan, and really the only special touches on the facade will be some public art (a good, simple idea to spruce up the front facade) and a sweeping glass wall. The Tulsa Convention Center's website actually prominently features pictures of the stunning nearby BOK Center, not the convention center. The TCC is surrounded by mostly large government superblocks on the east west side of downtown in front of the west leg of the IDL (DT Tulsa's loop system). City Hall has been moved to the other side of downtown and the city plans on having developers redevelop the old City Hall site, which will get infill going between the BOK and TCC. Across the street to the west and south there's more opportunities for infill. Connected on the south side is the Doubletree Hotel, at 18 stories and 417 rooms.. a good size convention hotel for a smaller convention center.

The TCC is probably not even the main convention center in Tulsa. The 448,400 sf QuikTrip Center at Expo Square (in Midtown Tulsa) features 354,400 sf of contiguous exhibition space, although it's more of an "expo center" facility than a "convention center" facility. The QT Center is best-known for the historic 8-story tall Golden Driller statue in front of it. The historic Expo Square Pavilion can seat 4,500 for a rodeo, and the brand-new Central Park Hall has about 50,000 sf of convention-suitable exhibition space.

Shreveport, LA. City pop -- 200,145. Metro pop -- 562,910.
Shreveport is another one of those smaller towns with surprisingly competitive convention centers, although it shouldn't be surprising noting that Shreveport and Bossier City are big gambling destinations. Finished in 2006 for a price of $140 million ($100 million if you don't include debt servicing on the bonds used to pay for it), this facility features over 350,000 total sf -- including a 95,000 sf exhibition hall, an 18,000 sf ballroom, and 10 meeting rooms with 1,600 sf each. The attached Shreveport Hilton has 313 rooms, which is a decent convention hotel for a convention-savvy city of 200,000. The site plan is also fairly simple, with no extra special obtrusive plazas or anything, as the center just comes right up to the street. The area around it isn't too obstructed with superblocks, downtown Shreveport is all within unimpeded walking distance and the riverboat casinos are a mere 2 blocks away.

Des Moines, IA. City pop -- 198,682. Metro pop -- 556,230.
The Iowa Events Center is sort of an interesting, all-inclusive public works project. It includes several different arenas, several different convention centers, as well as the primary Wells Fargo Arena with 16,110 seats for a basketball configuration. It includes two convention centers, one with 60,000 sf of exhibition space and 27 meeting rooms on two floors, another with 150,000 contiguous exhibition space and 14 meeting rooms, a 100,000 sf/7,200 seat smaller arena, and 23,700 sf of pre-convention facilities (like lobby space that can be used for stuff, etc). Overall the facility is probably about the size of the Cox Center, though I can't find an official overall size -- and cost $217 million, making it the largest public project in Iowa history. The big arena and the big convention center are divided by 3rd street, and the smaller convention center is one city block to the south.

Judging the site plan and how well it integrates urban is difficult because there are so many different corners, each divided facility on the compound meets the street differently. Overall, it's decent. The only thing there is to complain about is a lot of wasted space for an open-grass area between the Wells Fargo Arena and the Des Moines River. It would be nice to see the surface parking around the Iowa Events Center develop, but it's not nearly as big a deal as with the Qwest Center. The IEC opens right up to Downtown Des Moines and surface parking is hardly a unique phenomenon around downtown Des Moines. There is no convention center hotel, but downtown does feature many hotels, including a Renaissance and an Embassy Suites.

Albuquerque, NM. City pop -- 521,999. Metro pop -- 845,913.
The Albuquerque Convention Center, finished in 1991, is 600,000 sf total, with 167,000 total exhibition sf, 106,000 of which is contiguous. So add it to the list of centers that have more exhibition space than the Cox, too. Also features a 31,000 sf ballroom and a 2,300 seat auditorium. The ACC also features a 395-room Hyatt Regency Hotel on the site, and is currently making plans to add another 450-room hotel as well.

The renovations are a part of an overall downtown revitalization scheme that will add an 11,000 seat arena across the LRT line (yes, Albuquerque has LRT to Santa Fe), that will create sort of an events center complex that spans several blocks around the LRT station, similarly to the Iowa Events Center. It's basically the same as if the Ford and Cox were combined as a facility and just called the "Oklahoma Events Center." I really like the plans that Albuquerque has come up with for doing this, so far. They've broken up the superblock structures with having potpouri infill development on the site and a very pedestrian-friendly site plan. There is literally ZERO wasted space in this plan. By putting the convention center along the LRT line, they've minimized the wasted space because the LRT right-of-way would be wasted space anyway. LRT frontage isn't something that can usually be utilized regardless, it's the same as any railroad line (our streetcar lines will be different and more accessible).
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All of these cities have convention centers better-suited to host conventions than we do, and all of them have more convention space than us except Rogers, which even Rogers is giving us a run for our money now. When you don't even rank in the top 100 for convention centers, despite being a Top 30 Major U.S. City, something is wrong. Look directly at the root of the problem -- OKC is being one-upped by all of the smaller regional cities, a majority of them have less than half the metro population that we do (1.3 million). That needs to change.

From case examples that have been provided, I think the three most notable are Tulsa, Albuwhatever (I hate spelling that city's name out), and Omaha. Omaha teaches us to be wary of the bells and whistles and not to overlook simple site plan and access to the key activity areas of downtown. Tulsa teaches us that it's ok to be simple. Albuquerque is the best example of a top-notch convention center that balances great features with practicality and pedestrian access. While adding on to their convention center, they've figured out a way to break up the superblock, by sticking urban infill in different corners. The complex will bridge both sides of their LRT line, so it would be the equivalent of putting our center along the BNSF line, with the BNSF cutting through the heart of it. It's an idea. We've got three proposed sites, between the BNSF and the Central Park, the mill site across from Bricktown, and NE 9th and Oklahoma -- who said we couldn't reach a compromise by giving it great access to both the Central Park and Bricktown by having it cross over the BNSF tracks? Just a thought, inspired by one of our peer case examples.

15 comments:

mwheatley said...

Does XNA (Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport) not count as a major one? http://www.nwara.com/
8,800' runway, non-stop flights to flights to LAS, LAX, DFW, ORD, LGA, IAH, ATL, CVG, DTW, MSP, DEN, and CLT.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

WRWA and TIA barely count..

mwheatley said...

How do you classify an airport as "major"? Runway length? Number of non-stop flights? Number of gates? SHV (Shreveport) has two runways, both of which are shorter than XNA's runway. SHV has destinations of LAS, DFW, IAH, ATL, MEM, and either SGF or BBG, fewer destinations than XNA. YYC has one runway longer than XNA, but the other two are shorter.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

I don't know. You draw the line somewhere or else you can make the argument that Lawton has major airport access because it has about 10 daily flights to DFW.

mikeokc said...

I subscribe to your blog in my feed reader so sometimes I don't get over to comment as much as I should.

Thanks for taking the time and effort to put this post together. Very well done!

I have to agree with you about Qwest in Omaha. I was there in September of last year and was extremely impressed. Impressed with Omaha actually.

One other convention center that I loved due to its usability, proximity to restaurants, hotels, and vibrant atmosphere was the convention center in Des Moines. I don't remember what it's called. The street activity in downtown Des Moines is most impressive. It seems like a much bigger city than it is.

Once again, great job!

mwheatley said...

I draw the line at jet service, if the airport has jet service to at least two major airline hubs.

mwheatley said...

BTW man I like reading your thoughts on OKC.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

mwheatley, thank you for the compliment. I imagine jet service is probably just as good a threshold as anything, although now that I think of it, I think most people would draw the line at having a hub which none of the cities I mentioned have. WRWA and OMA are the closest.

Thanks Mike. Omaha and Des Moines are indeed very impressive cities. People up there have a civic attitude that's much more conducive to creating good cities than what we have down here. People just believe in doing their part to make their cities a good place so they don't even need anything like MAPS really.

mwheatley said...

You're welcome.

I understand using a hub as a diving line and how it leaves all the cities off, you're pretty much left with what's on fly.faa.gov. Maybe using census SMSAs with over some number of residents would be a way to do it? Top 50 television markets?

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

Well of course I might suggest using NBA teams to determine major markets, but that's just the booster in me. The truth is there is no way. There is a loosely defined second tier, but when it comes to airport traffic, that rarely matches up. Airport traffic is more difficult to build up than a city.

viagra online said...

I don't know. You draw the line somewhere or else you can make the argument that Lawton has major airport access because it has about 10 daily flights to DFW...

Anonymous said...

nice blog!

Mark said...

Actually yeah I count Lawton because of those flights.

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