OCEAN CITY — The newest layout for the proposed performing arts auditorium at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center could be the key to getting even the harshest naysayers on board with the idea.
Convention Center Director Rick Hamilton said a new concept, which he has pitched to the Mayor and Council, the Maryland Stadium Authority, members of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, the Chamber of Commerce and the newly formed Arts Advisory Board, has been well received thus far.
Originally, the plans for the expansion of the center included the construction of almost 20,000 square feet of bayfront exhibit or ballroom space on the west side of the building, which was approved by the Board of Public Works and the concurrence of the Maryland Stadium Authority to split the projected $8.2 million cost.
In addition to those plans, which to date have not been funded, was the $1.6 million estimate for the conversion of a ballroom into a 1,200-fixed seat auditorium.
As initially planned, the performing arts center would have essentially split the exhibit space to where you could not, according to Hamilton, “use the new ballroom and the existing or older ballroom together because the performing arts center was in between the two.”
“I didn’t think that the idea made a whole lot of sense,” said Hamilton, a 30-year veteran of the convention center industry. “The staff helped me draw up some sketches that would flip flop the placement of the performing arts auditorium so the exhibit or ballroom space would be 30,000 square feet of rectangular column free space, all the way to the bay.”
Hamilton said that the 30,000 square feet of new ballroom space on the second floor of the building would compliment the 50,000 square feet of open space downstairs in the convention center and give the building much more flexibility and diversify the building.
As for the new plan for the arts center, which Hamilton is calling an auditorium, the concept is to create a two-story, stadium-seating space with balcony seating that would resemble an opera house more so than just a big room with seats and a stage.
The plan also calls for the removal of the floor on the second floor, creating a 52-foot ceiling and a gigantic stage that would abut the loading bays in the existing Exhibit Hall C on the first floor for easy loading for acts.
City Manager Dennis Dare agrees with Hamilton’s opinion that this plan is a much better model.
“It is better for many reasons, but most of all it gives it its own entrance by the office downstairs, and that also means we can have an event in it and the balance of the convention center can be another event, but the two are separated,” said Dare.
Hamilton’s business strategy in inking deals with competitive arts groups like cheerleading and martial arts groups would be fully utilized by this new idea, as he would be able to address their height requirement needs for their competitions, thus making the room more versatile.
“I knew we would need a fly gallery for sets, sound and lighting, and with cheerleading and gymnastics, you need a minimum of 32-foot-high ceiling clearance, …” said Hamilton. “I tried to think of all the types of events that would use this space, including corporate meetings, and [the original plan] just didn’t work.”
Aesthetically, the plan sets to make the convention center second to none on the East Coast in Hamilton’s opinion, but Dare said the move would help with ensuring that the building, which is essentially booked for the next two years on the weekends, runs smoothly during the construction.
“We had a lot of these issues with the original concept and the new concept solves many of these issues. While first cost [for construction] will be higher, the life cost may not be any higher since it should be more efficient because it is more versatile, and will create more revenue,” Dare said.
Hamilton believes the plan could vastly increase the weekly and shoulder month business for the center, but realizes that the sticker shock of “at least $5 million” for the new center could be a bit much.
“It’s all going to be determined on what the feasibility study tells us, and whether or not this plan is viable in their eyes,” said Hamilton, “but the funding mechanism [the food and beverage tax] coupled with the fact that our partners, the Maryland Stadium Authority, seem to see the viability in growing this building, could work in our favor.”
Locally, one of the harshest critics of the performing arts center idea was Councilman Joe Hall. This week, even Hall sounded as if he was liking the new concept.
“I think that Rick [Hamilton] is headed in the right direction, and he’s doing his homework and he’s trying to maximize the investment of the taxpayers with this new idea,” said Hall. “I have always said that the original plan was limited and underestimated the cost, but I think this one is not only more responsible, but more feasible.”