OCEAN CITY — The planned performing arts center addition to the Roland E. Powell Convention Center has some members of the business community concerned it could have an unfavorable impact if existing bookings decide to go elsewhere.
Last weekend the first of two Reach The Beach cheerleading conventions was held at the convention center, and several hotel companies confirmed this week the future of the event in Ocean City is mired in uncertainty due to questions about the ultimate floor space that will be available once the 1,200-seat auditorium is added to the convention center.
According to Global JBS, a full-service firm that handles the destination management for the annual convention, the cheerleaders and their families reserved 2,385 rooms for the weekend at an average nightly room rate of $125. Total room nights were reported at 4,823 with a total hotel revenue calculated at more than $600,000, according to Global JBS. Similar bookings are expected for the April return of the cheerleaders.
In an email to Ocean City hoteliers and tourism representatives after the weekend event, Jeana V. Colby, housing coordinator for Global JBS, indicated the future of the event in Ocean City hinges on the impact the new performing arts center project will have on floor space availability.
“… we are looking forward to next year’s competition and are anxious to get the paperwork out to you; however, until a decision is made on the proposed changes to the Convention Center — we are at a standstill,” she wrote. “This competition has taken place in Ocean City 25 times and we desperately want this competition to remain in Ocean City. If the proposed changes to the Convention Center were to be made, we would lose a large portion of floor space that is required to run this competition.”
Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino has a meeting planned with Epic Cheerleading representatives Thursday afternoon to discuss renewing the convention for another three years.
“What we are trying to do is present the facts to them. The way 2014 is going to be construction-wise and then what we all have to look forward to in 2015 and 2016,” Noccolino said. “That email is fine, but we have had this meeting set up and it was confirmed on Monday.”
Last July, the Ocean City Mayor and Council approved the second phase of the convention center expansion, featuring the performing arts center. The state-of-the-art auditorium, when completed, will host shows, theater productions, plays, concerts and other events. The new auditorium will replace the convention center’s existing stage, the first-floor exhibit hall and a portion of the second-floor ballroom.
As approved, the performing arts center will feature two tiers of fixed seating including 850 seats on the first floor and another 350 in a second-floor balcony. The total cost of the second phase came in at around $14 million, of which the state, through the Maryland Stadium Authority, has committed $5.7 million. The state is also on the hook for 50 percent of the operating deficit for the project for the next 20 years.
Ocean City will fund the remaining $8.5 million, largely from a future bond sale, bond payments and a portion of the food tax rate. The General Assembly last year approved legislation to extend the dedication of a small percentage of the food tax to the convention center expansion.
Legislation currently in the Maryland General Assembly includes the state’s portion of the apportionment, but neither the House bill nor its sister bill in the Senate have been approved as of yet. However, it’s expected to be a formality on the legislative side before the Board of Public Works has the ultimate say.
Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) Executive Director Susan Jones said her organization supports the performing arts center, but membership is concerned about the impact it will have on future convention bookings, such as the cheerleaders.
“We are absolutely not opposed to a performing arts center. We think it’s a fantastic idea and a great addition to Ocean City. However, in hearing from convention center users, we are starting to realize perhaps changing to a performing arts center is not the best use of space,” she said. “We think we need to look at alternative locations. Wouldn’t it be a great thing for the north end of town to have something up there? The state could make it a nice, green building and it could be maybe at 94th Street. It would be a great example of economic revitalization for the north end of town. We see that everything is moving to West Ocean City, and it could be a great economic driver for the north-end businesses.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said Wednesday the performing arts center will only bolster the convention center’s appeal and believes there is misinformation circulating that needs to be corrected. There are no plans to change the city’s course at this time, he intimated.
“We value all our current clients and we need people to realize that once the performing arts auditorium is built we will have the same amount of space we had prior to the expansion. The first phase of the expansion was done to replace the floor area that was going to be taken up by the performing arts center, so the net area will be about the same. Plus, we will have the auditorium,” Meehan said. “That’s something we have to convey and make sure everybody understands how that space can be utilized and how the auditorium can also be utilized by our current clients. It’s the same net amount of space, but it’s a much prettier space.” Harrison Group Director of Sales Ruth Waters said the cheerleading convention resulted in her company booking 1,500 room nights over the weekend. She said without the cheerleading event nearly all those rooms would not have been full on a February weekend. Like Jones, Waters is worried about the performing arts center cutting into the large conventions the resort hosts, particularly during the off-season months.
“They booked 26 different hotels in town. Everybody is up in arms about this because they come in both February and in April. Nobody likes singing and dancing more than I do, but I don’t think the performing arts center should be cannibalizing our existing business,” Waters said. “A lot of the convention’s three-year contracts are up this year and it’s time for them to sign up again. If that convention center is not full in the winter, there is no business in town. It’s our total livelihood here. It’s huge. … The plan with this performing arts center is we will lose 800 seats in that new upstairs ballroom and that’s 800 hotel rooms in my view … we cannot take away the goose that laid the golden egg.”
While understanding of the concerns from the hospitality industry, Ocean City Cultural Arts Advisory Board Co-Chair Patti Miller reflected back to the feasibility study conducted prior to the most recent convention center expansion. She said it clearly stated a “multi-purpose, live performance facility in Ocean City is long overdue” and will enhance the quality of life of residents. She added the study said for the convention center to compete over the long term it needs to diversify its offerings.
“Understandably there are businesses in town that are apprehensive about any change to the Convention Center spaces. So it’s certainly time to meet, ask questions, become educated and honestly evaluate the short term and long term impact of Phase II of the Convention Center,” Miller said. “The Phase II addition has been studied, methodically planned and well designed. As with any large endeavor, the initial changes will have some short term impacts, some good, some quite challenging. Meeting these challenges head on, together, with a pro-active approach is hopefully the path that will be chosen by all the stakeholders.”
At the Roland E. Powell Convention Center this weekend is the OCHMRA’s 39th Annual Spring Trade Expo, which is expected to attract 6,500 people to the building over its two days. With the new bayfront ballroom addition, Jones said this year’s event will allow for two large exhibit halls of space, rather than three individual “scattered halls”, and the event benefited in more vendors booked than ever before and large vendor space being offered. Other larger shows expected to be impacted by the addition include the Seaside Boat Show in February, the Council on Youth Ministry in January, the Barbershopper’s in October and the Urban Expo in November.
“This year is going to be our best show yet, and the facility layout is a major reason why. It really is the best use of space for us … some space is not as easy to sell as others,” she said. “Next year we would lose half of the upstairs ballroom if it goes through, and we would have to go back to three rooms, one of which is very difficult to sell. Even though they built new space to accommodate for the loss of square footage for a performing arts center, what they built is not conducive for exhibits. The room we would have to use has 24 columns that are not equally spaced apart … causing problems for us as well as others.”
Jones reiterated her support for the performing arts center, but present plans worry her.
“Let’s not hurt the convention business to help the arts and culture community,” she said.
Meehan said future meetings will be held with all existing clients to ensure misinformation about the convention center’s expansion is not continuing to circulate.
“We plan to go back and touch base with all current clients and make sure they understand what we are doing and how it will benefit them,” the mayor said.