OCEAN CITY — Citing a need to gain a competitive edge over similar facilities in the region and increase the economic impact, Ocean City officials on Tuesday moved forward with the next proposed major expansion of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center.
The Mayor and Council on Tuesday approved hiring the Becker Morgan Group to begin performing site planning, a parking analysis and architectural planning for a proposed expansion of the exhibit space for the convention center of 30,000 square feet. The proposed expansion would bring the convention center in line with a recommendation decades ago to eventually expand to 80,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The original Convention Center was built in 1970 with 40,000 square feet of exhibit space on two levels along with seven meeting rooms and breakout rooms and other areas. The original convention center, with its iconic ramp from Coastal Highway to the front entrance, also included 1,100 parking spaces.
In 1990, a market and economic impact study found the facility captured a significant amount of convention activity within the state and throughout the mid-Atlantic region and recommended the facility be renovated and expanded to 80,000 square feet of exhibit space along with 30,000 square feet of meeting space and 20,000 to 25,000 square feet of ballroom or swing space.
To that end, the convention center was expanded in 1997 although not to the extent the study seven years earlier recommended. The convention center was been expanded since, including a roughly 19,000-square-foot ballroom in 2012 and the new 1,200-seat Performing Arts Center, which opened in late 2014. However, because of economic factors and other considerations, the town has been somewhat reluctant heretofore to make the big jump to 80,000 square feet of exhibit space recommended 26 years ago.
City Engineer Terry McGean told the Mayor and Council on Tuesday there were a variety of factors involved for the incremental expansion of the Convention Center, but the time was right to move forward with the next major expansion to 80,000 square feet of exhibit space.
“There were some unknowns at that time, so the plan was to move to 50,000 square feet of exhibit space with an eye on expanding in the future,” he said. “The future is now. We have events that have outgrown the 50,000-square-foot space.”
The town’s partner in the Convention Center, the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA), commissioned an updated market and economic impact study by its consultant Crossroad Consulting the results of which were presented to the Mayor and Council on Tuesday. Crossroads Consulting President Susan Sieger presented the findings of the study, which covered a myriad of issues from marketability, economic impact and a comparison of similar-sized facilities in neighboring locations and other resort areas.
In simplest terms, Sieger said the study showed Ocean City’s convention center was competitive with other facilities in the study, but lagged behind in certain areas because of space limitations, and even the configuration of the existing facility to some degree. Sieger said an expansion to 80,000 square feet of exhibit space would move Ocean City’s facility up the chain so to speak with its competitors and reaffirm its market share.
“You’ve been fortunate with your space because you’ve been able to bring a lot of people here and most of them stay overnight,” she said. “There is definitely a need from that segment in terms of space needed and the types of space needed.”
Sieger said the town’s history with its convention center has always been proactive, which has positioned it well in terms of the next proposed expansion.
“Ocean City has always been ahead of the curve,” she said. “Some wait too long until they lose their market share before considering expanding.”
The Crossroads Consulting study examined a variety of factors, good and bad, for the convention center including the number and proximity of hotel rooms and other amenities, for example. She said the study concluded most users of the convention center consider it a decent bargain.
“I wouldn’t consider Ocean City inexpensive, but those who use the space by and large consider it a good value,” she said.
Sieger said Ocean City fared favorably on a variety of indicators, but fell short on certain others. For example, the lack of a major airport was considered by some to be a challenge, but Ocean City has been able to attract a market share regardless.
“With strengths come challenges,” she said. “For example, a lack of a major airport nearby was considered by some a challenge for Ocean City. It’s a drive-in market and that’s not a bad thing because people tend to stay longer and it easier to bring additional people.”
Sieger also said another challenge can be the availability of lodging, particularly in the summer season. She also said some of the lodging has not kept pace with the changing times.
“Hotel availability and cost can be viewed as a challenge, especially during the peak season,” she said. “The study found some users thought the hotel properties were a little dated in terms of overall condition, aesthetics and guest amenities. It’s important to improve the overall product.”
McGean said the study reaffirmed the time was right for the town to start moving forward with the next major expansion to 80,000 square feet of exhibit area.
“We know we need to do an expansion and the 30,000 square feet of exhibit space seems to be the right number,” he said. “We’d like to move forward with the conceptual design work and get the project moving.”
McGean recommended the Mayor and Council hire the Becker Morgan Group to begin site planning, a parking analysis and architectural planning for the next major expansion. Becker Morgan presided over the last two center expansions with positive results, he said, although there would be competitive bidding for the final project. McGean said the preliminary work by Becker Morgan would cost around $26,000, of which $10,000 has already been appropriated in the budget. He asked the Mayor and Council to approve the additional $16,000 or move forward with the preliminary design work.
Councilman Dennis Dare said he fondly remembered the last study in 1990 recommended an expansion to 80,000 square feet, a number reaffirmed with the latest Crossroads study.
“Twenty-six years later, we find out we were on the money with that 80,000 number,” he said. “The way the convention center has grown is pretty amazing, but there are always ways to tweak things.”
For example, Dare said the Sunset Room owned by the town in the area north of the convention center could be revisited. The town owns the Sunset Room, which is used for certain private and public special events, but its usage has waned in recent years. Dare said the former restaurant and bar was built over sensitive wetlands and it could be time to revisit its current use.
Dare also suggested expanding the existing bayfront boardwalk along the center property to extend north to tie in with 45th Street and access to more hotels and parking.
Councilman Wayne Hartman said he liked the concept, but said it would likely take some level of private sector partnership.
“Having that bayfront boardwalk go up to 45th Street would impact some private property owners,” he said. “We would have to work with businesses in that area that might want to buy into that.”
Dare presented an itemized list of how parking at the convention center could be expanded with a reconfiguration and not a major addition including a parking garage. He said the current design of the loop around the existing parking to allow for buses and drop-offs was not efficient and left the handicapped spaces far from the facility. He also suggested the current north end of the property that houses the Senior Center and the loading dock areas could be reconfigured. In addition, he said the existing water tower on the convention center property was outdated and small and could be replaced down the road by a new tower in a different area, also expanding the number of parking spaces on the site.
Mayor Rick Meehan said the town’s share of a potential expansion would be funded through a half-a-cent on the food tax dedicated to the convention center and would not be a general fund expenditure. Meehan said the state is a 50-percent partner in the proposed expansion and would see an estimated $2.5 million to $3.5 million in additional tax revenue. The mayor reflected back on the last major expansion while advocating to the latest.
“I want to remind the public to go back to 1997 and remember what the convention center previously looked like,” he said. “If we didn’t do that then, where would be now in terms of market share. I’m very proud of the convention center and moving forward now with another expansion really makes us competitive in the market. We can take a look back at where we were, but it’s time to look forward.”
The council voted unanimously to hire Becker Morgan to begin the preliminary design work for the expansion and to allocate the requested $16,000 to fund the initial process.