Renovating, demolishing, or expanding the outdated Cook Convention Center has been discussed for years without any results, but a new wave of talks on the topic may spur (or reveal) action in what some say is a high-stakes game the city is losing.
Last week, Memphis City Council member Harold Collins called for the formation of a new group to discuss the city's options for the future of the aging facility, and the city council was set to discuss the topic Tuesday.
Collins said he wanted to make it a priority for the city after losing the Church of God in Christ meeting that drew thousands to Memphis every year. He said AutoZone and FedEx executives say the convention center and its surrounding hotels do not have the capacity to host some of their large staff meetings.
"How can we be a city that declares itself to be one of America's greatest cities for hospitality if we do not have adequate meeting space and hotel rooms for these opportunities?" he asked.
Collins said his efforts to form the study group were discouraged by members of A C Wharton's administration who said they were already working on a plan. Wharton confirmed Monday his team has been working behind the scenes for more than a year on a plan for the facility. But that work has been done quietly, he said, as it involves private-sector partners who "don't like to be out front until it's basically a done deal." Wharton did not divulge details of the project.
A similar feasibility study group was formed in 2008 by then-Mayor Willie Herenton. But the work of that group was never complete and therefore never made public. Wharton said he's never had the full report. The financial portion of it is missing, and financing is the most crucial part of any plan to change the city's convention center.
"We've got to assess very keenly just what is our borrowing capacity as far as the city is concerned," Wharton said. "Even if some other agency were to come up with the financing piece, ultimately they're going to come in and [ask if] the city of Memphis [can] back this up."
Management of the facility was handed over two years ago to Memphis Management Group, a subsidiary of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). John Oros, CVB executive vice president, said the facility generates about $3.5 million in annual revenue but usually runs an annual deficit of around $1.6 million.
In a good year, the facility can have a more than $100 million economic impact in the region. But the center holds the city back in the "hyper-competitive" convention industry, keeping the city even out of the national top 100.
"[The convention center] puts us at an extreme disadvantage when we're competing with cities like Nashville, Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans, Tampa, and Charlotte," Oros said.
But even a new convention center would not cure Memphis' problem in attracting big groups without a large, preferably adjacent hotel to go with it. Meeting planners are looking for an all-in-one solution, but this makes a catch-22, according to Peggy Callahan, executive director of the Metro Memphis Hotel and Lodging Association.
"Some say we really have enough rooms downtown, and if you overbuild then we'll just have a bunch of empty rooms, but we won't know unless we have the rooms to attract bigger groups," Callahan said. "So, if you have them, will they come?"