OKC panel picks designer of new convention center

Thursday, September 27, 2012

by Steve Lackmeyer

The citizens committee tasked with guiding development of a new convention center is sticking with a site chosen south of the Myriad Gardens after hearing a proposal that the location be reconsidered.   

The pitch by former Mayor Kirk Humphreys to reopen the discussion arose as the MAPS 3 Convention Center Citizens Subcommittee was being asked to approve a contract with firms Populous and GSB to design the $250 million project.   

Humphreys cautioned that he was informed by the consultants that costs for the site, including previously proposed underground construction of exhibit halls, would likely run higher than anticipated.   

“It’s been some time since we made this selection, and there is a question in my mind as to whether we will have the money we need to have the square footage we want and put it underground,” Humphreys said. “What I really don’t want to end up with is a lot less square feet than we need or another big box ‘Cox Center 2’ next to the Myriad Gardens.”  

Greater Oklahoma City Chamber President Roy Williams, who participated in interviews of qualified firms for the design contract, responded that Populous and other firms applying for the job indicated the site will still work.

“Most of them felt we can get what we wanted,” Williams said. “Some say we will have to make some trade-offs. By and large, they felt we could build what we want.”  

Another member of the committee, Devon Energy Executive Chairman Larry Nichols, responded he also felt as if the previous site selection was sufficient.   

“We went through a laborious, lengthy and thorough process,” Nichols said. “To go with a process to look for a second site to build this is not very inspiring. It’s wrong to start second-guessing the site right now. We’ve picked the best site.”   

The committee and city staffers did agree, however, to add into the Populous contract that the firm assess costs and feasibility with the dealership site as one of their first tasks.   

Populous is the third major MAPS 3 contract in which a firm hired for early analysis was later hired for overall project design, with Hargreaves Associates hired for both phases of work on the MAPS 3 park and Jacobs Engineering hired for both phases of design for the MAPS 3 streetcar system.   

The overall project budget for the convention center is $250 million, including costs for design and site acquisition. The city council reallocated $30 million of the original $280 million budget to infrastructure costs, including possible relocation of an electric substation south of the Chesapeake Energy Arena.   

The current timeline calls for construction of the new convention center to start in 2016. Mike Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Oklahoma City Council on Tuesday the city faces a challenge in booking bigger conventions because of the lack of exhibit space and large blocks of hotel rooms.   

“Our fiscal year 2012 was a good year but also a challenging year,” Carrier said. “While Oklahoma City has pretty well recovered in many ways, at least our tourism industry has, from the recession we suffered a couple years ago, our industry as a whole still has some challenges.”  

Carrier said the city exceeded its goal of 324,000 room night sales and instead booked 417,000 room nights. Direct spending, however, totaled $190.6 million, short of the convention bureau’s goal of $231.5 million.   

Carrier said motor coach bus tours were a success story this year, totaling 823 compared to his bureau’s early projection of 550 tours. He attributed much of that success to the “Passages” Bible history exhibit from May through October last year at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  

Carrier said the city is losing larger convention bids due to inadequate meeting space, which he hopes will be addressed with the new convention center. He reminded the city council the city also urgently needs a 600-plus room conference hotel. He noted that of the city’s 235 hotels, only six have more than 300 rooms. 

“Conferences routinely ask for 500-room blocks,” Carrier said. “We need a 600- to 650-room hotel to accommodate such demand.”   

Consultants have previously advised the city that such a hotel will likely require at least a $50 million subsidy.   

“There is a lot of interest in the hotel community in what’s going on here because of the convention center,” Carrier said. “There are hotel companies staying in touch with us.”