Economic Committee Gets First Look At Expanded Powell Center

OCEAN CITY — Resort business leaders this week got a first look at the nearly completed first phase of the expansion of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center along with some encouraging words from its relatively new director about the future of the facility.

On Wednesday, the Ocean City Economic Development Committee (EDC) held its bi-monthly breakfast meeting in the newest ballroom of the recently completed Phase I of the expansion of the facility. The first phase of the project featured an expansion of the west deck of the facility and an expanded ballroom space complete with floor-to-ceiling windows offering breathtaking views of the bay.

“As you can see, the view is outstanding,” said Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino, who was hired last spring and is overseeing the expansion. “If we can’t sell this space, shame on us.”

The first phase of the expansion, which will ultimately add 32,000 square feet in new exhibit and convention space, began in August 2011 and came in on budget and on time as expected in October. Noccolino told EDC members on Wednesday he had been closely monitoring the progress and was prepared to start booking groups for the new space shortly after the first phase was completed.

“I’m a convention center, hotel, restaurant guy,” he said. “I would get my report card weekly. The plan called for a completion date of around Oct. 8 or 9 and we had our first group come in on Oct. 12.”

Providing a backdrop for the EDC meeting on Wednesday was the set for the Silver Sizzle show, a Las Vegas-style review featuring former Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, which opened a four-day stint at the Convention Center yesterday. Even while the EDC meeting was taking place on Wednesday, construction noise could be heard from different areas of the facility.

“It’s about 75 percent complete,” said Noccolino. “If you look around, you can see there a few things that need to be done.”

Noccolino said the intent is to maximize the renovated and expanded space with its lower level exhibit hall and new bayfront ballroom exposure. The overall goal is to book events and shows that will provide the greatest economic benefit to the town and its private sector partners.

“We certainly won’t turn them down, but we’re not here to book weddings,” he said. “We’re here to book 1,000-person events and up. That’s 500 room-nights. There are a lot of groups that want to book with us. One of the first questions is how many room nights? We need to make sure the business we book is the right business for Ocean City.”

Noccolino said he and his sales staff, including long-time sales director Fred Wise and his new deputy, were vigorously selling the new space to potential groups.

“With this room and with the other breakout rooms, there is no reason why we can’t book this space,” he said. “I’m not going to take no for an answer. I came from a company that was very aggressive.”

Noccolino said the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey presented some opportunities for Ocean City and its convention center, from the standpoint of assisting its neighbors to the north with relief efforts and also absorbing some of the convention business that will be lost because of the storm’s after effects.

“We’ve already talked to officials from the Atlantic City and Wildwood convention centers,” he said. “We’re asking them: how can we help?”

With the first phase about complete and operational, the focus now switches to the highly anticipated second phase, which includes a 1,200-seat performing arts center. The state-of-the-art auditorium will replace the convention center’s existing stage, the first-floor exhibit hall and a portion of the second-floor ballroom.

It will include two-tiers of fixed seating and is expected to attract major shows, concerts, plays and other performances.

The 32,000-square-foot, first phase expansion cost an estimated $9.3 million with $5 million paid by the town of Ocean City with a half a cent on the resort’s food tax rate dedicated to the project and the remaining $4.3 million paid by the state through its Maryland Stadium Authority. The second phase will cost an estimated $14 million with a similar cost-sharing formula in place. In August, the state’s Board of Public Works approved the stadium authority’s contribution to the second phase of the convention center expansion.

Already, the convention center expansion is being considered a potential economic windfall for Ocean City and its state partner. The estimated new tax revenue generated is expected to come in at a range of $1.1 million to $1.6 million annually and the facility is expected to provide 300 to 400 full-time jobs.