City consultant favors mall site for conference center
Consultant says council has tough choice of 'equally successful' proposals
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
When Jefferson City Council members vote, as early as next Monday, to choose a conference center developer, they know their consultant favors the Capital Mall site — with the downtown site as a backup.
“From an attractiveness standpoint, both are equally good,” consultant Charles Johnson, of Chicago-based Johnson Consulting, told council members Tuesday night.
“From a deal-structure standpoint, the mall site is clearer (and) simpler.”
City officials for several months have been looking at proposals from two developers, the Jefferson City-based Farmer Development and Hannibal-based Ehrhardt Hospitality Group.
The Farmers bought the Capital Mall earlier this year, and propose to place the conference center there, while the Ehrhardt proposal would build on West McCarty Street, near the Truman State Office Building, Capitol complex and the existing Capitol Plaza Hotel.
“In my judgment, both locations would be good and you would not lose anything in this market, if you were at the mall,” Johnson told the council. “Do they meet the city’s criteria? I think both proposals do.
“One is different — more of an Expo Hall that would associate with the Capitol Plaza Hotel, and one is what I would characterize as a more traditional convention/conference center project.
“And both of them have proposed about the same size (150 rooms) hotel.”
But one of the potential problems with the Ehrhardt proposal, Johnson said, is its planned link with the Capitol Plaza.
“That agreement has not been structured, yet,” Johnson noted. “And we have not seen anything that communicates that there will be an operating agreement between the Capitol Plaza and Ehrhardts … and we’ve asked for it.”
The Ehrhardt proposal includes a 350-space parking garage — at an additional $7 million cost — while the Farmer plan would use the mall’s existing 2,381-space surface parking lot.
Johnson also noted the Ehrhardts would seek city assistance in acquiring and preparing the downtown site, while the Farmers already own the mall site — and have noted they have room to expand.
Both developers would use $9 million the city already has raised through the voter-approved hotel tax.
However, Johnson said, the Ehrhardts’ total cost for the proposed conference center and companion hotel is $24.68 million, while the Farmers’ proposed total is $36 million.
Interim City Administrator Drew Hilpert told the council that after they chose one of the developers “is really where the hard work begins … working with the developer on a contract.”
It’s possible that a final contract won’t be reached, he said.
Council members noted they also could authorize Hilpert and the city staff to negotiate with both developers, to see which would, ultimately, agree to a better deal.
“It’s possible,” Hilpert said, “but I think Mr. Johnson would advise against that.”
Council members’ questions focused on differences between the two locations, and how that would help — or hurt — efforts to attract new convention or conference business.
All agreed that tours of the old penitentiary grounds are a draw.
Diane Gillespie, new director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the council: “My biggest concern is the size — we do not need a duplicate of what we already have here in town.
“If we’re going to bring a conference center to town, we need to be able to bring new business to the community.”
She said her office currently has “100 to 125 accounts that one, we haven’t been able to talk to, because we don’t have enough space to accommodate their meeting needs or two, they have called us and want to come to Jefferson City, but we do not have enough space to accommodate them.”
One of the drawbacks with existing facilities, she said, is they don’t have enough space for a group to provide banquets and keep exhibits throughout a conference.
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