Last week, after Mayor Willie Herenton held an impromptu press conference to discuss the whens, whethers, why, and hows of a new (or revamped) downtown convention facility, Kevin Kane, head of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, met with the media to elaborate. Here are excerpts from that discussion. — by Jackson Baker
Why are we talking change right now?
Kane: I think it's the right time to be exploring how we should be positioned over the next decade or two decades. And that's all we're doing here. Nobody's saying that we're going to build a new convention center. Nobody's even implying that we're going to expand the current convention center.
How important is the question of hotel space?
We've got 22,000 hotel rooms in the city of Memphis and Shelby County, and we only have five hotels with over 300 rooms. Opryland has more hotel rooms under one roof in Nashville than we have in all our hotel rooms in downtown Memphis. There is a competitive disadvantage for Memphis when we're going after large meetings.
What's the payback from a new facility or an expansion?
This hundred-million-dollar expansion that was completed in 2003 has doubled our output in Memphis' convention center. And if you don't believe me, ask any restaurant operator, ask any merchant on Beale Street, and they will tell you the impact when this building is blowin' and goin'. When downtown is sold out, all the other hotels [around the city] feel the compression factor and it helps their occupancies.
Where would a new facility be located?
The possible location hasn't been decided. I know when people saw the bulldozers across from AutoZone Park there was a perception that the groundbreaking's already happened on construction. That's just very coincidental. Is that a great potential location for something? Of course it is. But we still have a big asset over here [at Cook Convention Center].
Let's face it: 75 percent of Cook's footprint was built in 1973. There are inherent operation challenges with a building of that age, and obviously with the construction that's going on all around the country, it does pose competitive threats for us as we look toward the future. But the Marriott, the largest hotel in downtown Memphis, is still going to need ballrooms and meeting space that they don't have without the Cook Convention Center. So that [previous] $100 million expansion is going to serve this community for probably the next 20 to 30-plus years.
There are absolutely no foregone conclusions as to what we're going to do.