Council Divided On $5M Convention Center Upgrade

OCEAN CITY – Last week the City Council seemed willing to play along with ideas to upgrade the Roland E. Powell Convention Center. This week, some members were singing an entirely different tune.

Plans were presented at last week’s City Council work session for a $5 million upgrade to the existing convention center which would include efficiency improvements to heating, water, electrical and technological components of the building as well as altering the existing layout of the second floor to accommodate a 1,700-fixed seat auditorium and bayfront ballroom.

After getting a tour of the building on Monday afternoon before the council meeting that night, Councilman Jim Hall informed his colleagues he does not support spending the money at this time to improve the convention center.

“You aren’t going to be happy with me, but I don’t support any renovations to the convention center at this time,” Hall said. “To spend $5 million when we are cutting bus service and trash pickup is just crazy.”

One week after City Engineer Terry McGean’s proposal, which included the Florida-based Crossroads consulting firm’s report recommending the initial $5 million phase of expansion, and not the large-scale $60 million plan, Councilmen Jim Hall and Joe Hall said more discussion is needed before making a large expenditure in these economic times.

“At the very least, we should have a town meeting and let people come and put their two cents in. I think most people will find this preposterous,” said Jim Hall. “Today, we walked through the building and saw what you wanted to do to it, and tonight, you want me to vote on this. I’m not even through the full report yet. No disrespect, but I think to do that would be foolish.”

Councilwoman Mary Knight disagreed with Hall and proposed a motion to go forward with phase one of the renovation, citing that the investment would be a moneymaker for the town.

“I see these enhancements as money generators for the building and for the town. Performing arts centers bring in money, and this one doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything,” she said.

The initial phase of the expansion would be funded by a $5 million bond extension that was granted last year to the initial $15 million in bonds that were borrowed by the town during the last expansion of the building in 1996. Both the town and the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) took out $15 million bonds and split the operational costs of the building 50/50 in 1996.

According to Finance Administrator Martha Lucey, the town of Ocean City is set to pay off their entire balance of the original $15 million at the end of this fiscal year, which is seven years early. The MSA, in comparison, won’t pay its off until 2015.

Much of the reason the bond has been paid off early is the food and beverage tax, which charges a penny for every dollar spent in Ocean City and has been in place since the last expansion took place. Lucey said that the food tax would pay these additional $5 million in bonds off before the MSA pays its original deficit for the convention center, essentially making this a venture that would cost no additional money to taxpayers and would keep the valuable food tax and partnership with the MSA in place, all while upgrading the building.

Mayor Rick Meehan hinted that the upgrades were for the greater good of the town, saying, “we only have one industry in this town and that’s tourism, and we are trying to promote it year round. The revenue created from the food tax will retire the debt and benefits everyone year-round, helping to draw more people to the convention center, which helps fill hotels and restaurants.”

Still, despite findings from both the Crossroads Consulting Firm and with knowledge that the funding mechanism is essentially in place, Councilmen Jim Hall and Joe Hall weren’t convinced that it was a good idea to expand.

“I can’t support the motion to upgrade the building now, though I might support some of the upgrades like heating and electrical. I remember the last expansion of the building, there were stains on the roof and it was in total disrepair. That building is not in that kind of shape, so I think we should listen to what the public has to say, since that’s who we work for,” said Joe Hall.

Some members of the community who organize events held in the convention center took umbrage with the plans to alter the existing layout of the main ballroom, most notably, the 1,700-seat auditorium that would be used as a performing arts center.

Jim Flaig, co-chairman of the Seaside Boat Show, which has been an annual attraction in Ocean City for a quarter of a century, attracting thousands of people each February, feared that installing fixed seats would jeopardize his show.

“We wholeheartedly endorse enclosing the balcony for the bayfront dining area and would like to see a two-floor parking area added, but we are very much against cutting the main ballroom in half and putting in fixed seats;” said Flaig. “If you put fixed seats in there, it will destroy our show. Put portable seats in there that you can set up and tear down.”

Mayor Rick Meehan took exception to Flaig’s comment that changing the layout would ruin the boat show.

“With all due respect, I think the word destroy is a little harsh. If you look at what we are trying to do long-term by expanding the whole building and add additional parking for your show and others, you’ll see our full plan,” Meehan said. “We aren’t in a position to do the full expansion right now, but we wanted to take the first step.”

Despite altering the layout, Ocean City Tourism Director Mike Noah said that only 2,000 square feet of exhibit space would be lost with phase one of the expansion, and what is lost by taking away half of the main ballroom and putting in the performing arts auditorium would be added to the back balcony area, which will be a ballroom/dining area with a bay view.

The issue of putting in the fixed seats seems to be the biggest issue in this other than the monetary concerns in lieu of the economy for Jim Hall and for some of the concerned exhibitors that use the convention center for shows.

“Why screw up our convention center now when you guys have been screaming for more space by cutting it in half and putting in fixed seating?,” Jim Hall asked.

Noah said that nothing is set in stone, including the plans for fixed seating saying.

“There are no architectural plans yet. These are just ideas, and I’m not even sure if the fire marshal would let us put fixed seats in there,” Noah said.

In the end, Knight amended her motion to approve the plan to call for Meehan to write a letter to the Maryland Stadium Authority and ask for their continued financial partnership on this venture.

“Let me write the letter to the Stadium Authority and ask them to partner with us on this venture,” said Meehan, “and let’s keep this conversation going here, and we’ll bring it back at a later date.”