OCEAN CITY — Citing a need to gain a competitive edge over similar facilities in the region and increase the economic impact, Ocean City officials this week agreed to move forward with the next major expansion of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center with an estimated price tag of around $34 million.
The Mayor and Council on Tuesday approved the next step in the convention center expansion process when they voted unanimously to request state funding for the matching share of the project through the Maryland Stadium Authority, which partners with Ocean City on the ever-expanding facility. The proposed expansion would add 30,000 square feet of exhibit space on the north side of the facility that would tie into the existing Exhibit Halls A and B, bringing total square footage to 80,000 square feet.
The expanded space could be used alone for a single event, or opened up with the other adjacent exhibit halls to create a larger space. Also included in the proposed expansion are new restrooms on the west side of the existing convention center along with expanded meeting rooms and a business center.
The total cost of the project is $34 million, of which the state is requested to fund 60 percent, or $20.4 million. The town’s share would be 40 percent, or roughly $13.6 million, which would be funded by the one cent added to the food tax in Ocean City. Several years ago, state lawmakers allowed one cent to be added to the food tax in Ocean City with the revenue earmarked for convention center expansions.
For years, the amount of additional food tax was capped at $15 million, but that figure was increased to $20 million in advance of the most recent expansions of the convention center in the resort. In short, Ocean City’s 40-percent share of the proposed convention center expansion, roughly $13.6 million, would be paid entirely through the expanded food tax.
“The project is 100 percent affordable,” said City Engineer Terry McGean, who presented the plan and funding strategy to the Mayor and Council on Tuesday. “There will be no subsidy needed from the general fund. The room tax will cover the debt service without any increase and come within the allowable restraints.”
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 has 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.
McGean said the proposed expansion resulted in no net loss of existing parking spaces. While the expanded space could create more demand for parking at the convention center during the largest events, McGean explained the city had since acquired satellite parking lots in the area. He also encouraged city officials to explore ways to get convention center attendees to utilize public transportation more.
The original expansion plans called for the construction of a multi-level parking garage on the site to the tune of around $8 million. However, McGean said less than a dozen events throughout the year would require more parking than what is currently available at the convention center and the parking garage was left out of the final design.
“We’re adding more exhibit space, but the parking is there to support it,” he said. “At this time, we don’t need an $8 million parking garage that would be needed about 10 times a year. Before we spend $8 million on a parking garage, we need to explore how we can utilize what we have better.”
McGean said the proposed expansion would be seamless and fit right into the existing convention center without looking like an afterthought. A promenade along the bayside of the facility would connect the existing exhibit space with the expanded space.
“It looks like part of the same building,” he said. “It won’t look like something that was just added on and it’s very architecturally pleasing,”
Mayor Rick Meehan said the parking issues would be worked out and agreed the $8 million garage was not needed at this time. He pointed to the recent success of the municipal transit system as a means to get convention center attendees to the facility.
“I think we’re up for the challenge,” he said. “We’ve done some good things with transportation the last few years. This is the final piece. This is what our users have asked for.”
Maryland Stadium Authority officials said on Tuesday they were comfortable with the proposed 60/40 split with the town on the cost of $34 million expansion. With that said, the Mayor and Council voted unanimously to submit the funding request to the state.
“This is a great testament to this project,” Meehan said. “I think it will allow us to keep pace with or even surpass our competitors.”