A packed City Hall courtroom listened to passionate advocates for the Oxford Conference Center speak on behalf of continuing operations at a special Board of Alderman meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Among those was an attorney for Oxford hotel developer Chan Patel who is in negotiations with the city to take over operations of the Conference Center. Rising to speak, Carter Hitt said, “Mr. Patel and Charter Roads LLC is interested in the continued operation of the Conference Center, whether the city does it, or whether that operation is conducted by a third-party group such as ourselves. We are an interested party in the Conference Center and consider it a valuable asset to the community.”
In a later exclusive conversation with HottyToddy.com, Patel and Hitt confirmed the hotel developer has submitted a proposal to the city to take control of the Conference Center. Hitt and Patel expected to have a revised proposal prepared within two days.
The Board listened to the impassioned testimony of speakers, including University hospitality and nationally recognized School of Pharmacy and Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences officials. Both groups bring meetings and events to the community. Also speaking before the Board was incoming Oxford, Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce president Jon Maynard.
Hitt said operating the Conference Center as a for-profit enterprise would be challenging.
“We are discussing all details of the Conference Center operation with the city and other experts in an attempt to determine if it is feasible to meet the community’s needs and make a profit,” Hitt said. “Mr. Patel is a business man who cares about the community, wishes the Conference Center to remain viable, but is obviously not motivated to take this operation on unless it can make money.”
Larry Sparks, Vice Chancellor for finance at The University of Mississippi, also attended the meeting and later confirmed to HottyToddy.com that Ole Miss has a stake in the Conference Center. Sparks said any plan to re-purpose the Conference Center would affect the university’s ability to hold certain programs in the community. Sparks said many university programs depend on the facility to host meetings and conferences. “There is no other large space. These programs would have to be moved to another town,” Sparks said.
Dr. Ed Meek, former Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Relations and Marketing, said he was tasked to work closely with the late Mayor Pat Lamar in securing funding and support for the facility. “Ole Miss put a great deal of time and effort into making this a reality, joining the City in appealing for support from our Washington delegation.”
Mr. Patel said the 10,000-square-foot meeting space in the facility is the only space of that size outside of Tupelo and Southaven in North Mississippi.
Ole Miss Athletic Director Ross Bjork said that, “The University had a 10-year agreement to pay to the city $50,000 for use of the rifle range located in the National Guard facility. We completed that payment in 2012 for a total of $500,000 and the new agreement calls for us to pay the utilities, which are in the range of $20-25,000 per year.”
In a report posted Dec. 3, Mayor Pat Patterson told HottyToddy.com that the current business environment makes continued operation of the Conference Center an untenable position for the city. “It isn’t working anymore,” he said. “God didn’t wire me to sit here and watch the city lose money this way.”
How much money? About $350,000 annually, according to multiple sources, with eight years left on the bond term. The original bond offering (since refinanced) that funded Conference Center construction in 2002 was about $6 million. The city continues to pay off the bond with interest at the rate of about $380,000 annually.
But that’s only part of the overall expense tied up in the Conference Center. The city subsidizes the operation’s costs to the tune of an additional $350,000 a year.
Mayor Patterson said only one hotel tracks hotel tax revenues. That hotel estimated only $3000-$3500 annually in tax revenues. However, another group, which uses the facility, estimated that they brought about $350,000 in overall revenues to the community through their program. The hotel tax is only part of the financial picture, they indicated.
On Dec. 17, the mayor introduced the meeting by saying, “It’s important that everyone gets a chance to speak on this issue. We (he and the Board of Aldemen) unanimously agree that our goal is to keep the Conference Center open — but we have to minimize the losses.”
The problem, added the mayor, is that the city and observers believe very little extra efficiency can be rung out of the operation. Despite structural problems with the original building plan, city officials are eager to say that current staff is performing admirably.
Tomorrow HottyToddy.com will have more on the meeting.
Andy Knef is HottyToddy.com editor.