Convention Center Expansion Plans Hit A Snag

OCEAN CITY — Acting Convention Center Director Wayne Prior had a timeline written up concerning the expansion to the Roland E. Powell Convention Center, but now he’s being told he might as well tear that timeline to shreds.

Prior informed the Ocean City Tourism Commission last week that, “due to the economic times and the recent cuts that have come from the state level, it is just not the right time for us to gain approval for the convention center expansion.”

Simply put, the state budget cuts, the latest round of which totaled over $450 million, has pushed back the necessary Board of Public Works approval of the town’s planned upgrade and expansion to the convention center to an undisclosed date.

“They are telling me it’s not going to go to the Board of Public Works for at least a month now,” said Prior. “The Maryland Stadium Authority has notified Becker Morgan Architectural Firm in Salisbury to be ready if and when the project gets to the final stages of the process.”

If there was concern that the budget cuts, which were largely done on the back of local governments, were going to jeopardize the project from taking place, nobody in the room appeared to show it as most remained positive that this way a mere bump in the road rather than a derailment.

“At some point in time, I am confident that we are going to get the approval of the Board of Public Works, but we need to convince those in the state that this project is a revenue enhancement for Maryland,” said Prior.

The Maryland Stadium Authority, the town’s 50/50 partner during the last expansion to the Convention Center in 1995, also has yet to present the entirety of the project to its board, even though it has agreed on some level to once again partner with the town and split the projected $10 million renovation.

“Maryland Stadium Authority was looking to present this week, but life is about timing and this apparently isn’t the right time,” said Prior. “We are going to have to see how things shake out with these most recent budget cuts before we can move forward.”

There are a few factors in this instance that are on the town’s side as it hopes to convert one of the center’s ballrooms to a 1,200-fixed seat performing arts center and practically double the exhibit space by adding 10,000 square feet for exhibitors. In addition, the town plans to upgrade lighting and heating.

“This isn’t general fund money, it’s bonded money, and our partner, the Maryland Stadium Authority, has bonding authority,” noted Mayor Rick Meehan. “You also have to look at revenues and expenditures as there’s two sides to every balance sheet. This expansion is going to bring the state revenue and especially now, you can’t eliminate all the expenditures that create revenue.”

The City Council voted through the expansion of the Convention Center last fall in a heavily debated 4-3 vote, but also cut the funding source, the 1 percent food and beverage tax in half.

The $4.1 million each that the town and MSA will get bonds for will be easily paid back by the half-percent allotted to the bonds by the food tax and was one of the big reasons that many point to in swaying the vote.

Meehan said this week that he is not concerned with the fate of the project, but he says it’s proper to have the final decision pushed back so that the Board of Public Works can address some important issues that they are behind on.

“I think at this point, it’s best for us to wait it out, and allow them to deal with the things that need immediate attention,” said Meehan, “but I’m confident that even with everything going on at the state level, we are going to get approval and move forward with this expansion to the convention center.  It’s just about the timing.”