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25. Conference Center Closure Considered

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HottyToddy.com has learned that Oxford’s mayor and Board of Aldermen are considering a plan to close the Conference Center off Highway 7 on Sisk Avenue.

One possibility, Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson disclosed, is that the Oxford Police Department would move to that location.

Although the move has not been finalized, aldermen and the mayor will meet this week to decide on a plan, various sources confirmed. Mayor Patterson added, “We will take comments as we always do and probably have some kind of public hearing.”

Mayor Pat Patterson

Mayor Patterson stressed 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.

It’s that money that Mayor Patterson believes may best be re-directed to more effectively serve taxpayers. “There’s many possibilities to use the funds that would be saved on the Conference Center,” Mayor Patterson said. “Increased city parking, road improvements, and Activities Center and Police Department upgrades are just a few of the possibilities.”

According to Butch Scott of Taylor Catering, which provides catering services presently at the Conference Center, the city is actively considering moving the police to the Center from the OPD’s current Molly Barr location.

The mayor confirmed that this provision is under discussion.  “The police station is badly overcrowded with insufficient parking,” Mayor Patterson said. He added that current general manager Hollis Green agrees the Center is not ideally designed for convention business.

But Green says he is “saddened” by the proposed shutdown, if it becomes reality. “I’m sad mainly for my employees and the great relationships with customers we’ve built over the years,” Green said. “The last two years have been our best revenue years but we’re not close to breaking even and ‘I get it’ if that’s the decision.”

Alderwoman Robyn Tannehill

Alderwoman Robyn Tannehill says the status quo is not acceptable. “The bond payments have to be issued regardless of what decisions we ultimately make,” Alderwoman Tannehill said. “If we could move the Police Department into a more efficient space, that might be a better use of taxpayer’s money. That’s what we were all elected to do — what’s best for the taxpayers.”

Two other Oxford aldermen contacted by HottyToddy.com said they were reserving their opinions on any possible Conference Center moves.  “I’m open minded about the decision,” said Alderman Ulysees Howell. “We’re exploring all avenues, but we have received reports that the operation is losing significant money. I want to hear about plans that will create a new ballgame, make money and not be a sinkhole.”

Alderman Jay Hughes was even more cautious about any potential changes to the current Conference Center set-up.

Alderman Jay Hughes

“We’re putting together the financial and regulatory information for the Board to make an informed decision,” Alderman Hughes said. “The Board will make the final determination on this issue, but we’ll only make it when all the facts are presented.”

Alderman Hughes said he has long questioned the viability of the Conference Center competing with hotels offering convention space such as the Inn at Ole Miss located on the Ole Miss campus. Now, the competition level is expanding with proposed new area hotels, including a new Marriott on Jackson and the hotel that will replace the torn-down Downtown Inn on North Lamar.

“We’ve been bleeding money for a number of years despite our best efforts and the great contributions of the staff at the Conference Center,” Alderman Hughes said. “The property has been offered to hotel owners in the past and nobody wanted it.

“Ultimately we must decide, ‘What’s the best use of tax dollars?’ We won’t make a knee-jerk decision but we must have a financial plan that meets the long-term needs of our community,” Alderman Hughes added.

Alderman Hughes said many options are constantly under discussion, but moving the Park Commission into the Conference Center along with the Police Department isn’t a move he has heard about.

One complication of any proposed change is the presence of the Mississippi National Guard as a co-tenant of the Conference Center space. The Guard has a long-term lease and city attorney Pope Mallette is researching the legality of altering the original terms of the bond agreement.  At posting time, Mallette said he has found nothing to prevent tenant changes as long as bond payments are fulfilled.

Alderman Tannehill agrees that no firm actions are imminent while due diligence and fact-finding are underway. She concedes that any decision to close out Conference Center operations will be a painful option, involving lost jobs and a major reassessment of a more than decade-long city investment in the convention business. But she warns the change may be unavoidable.

Scott, whose employees would be among those affected by the move, says shutting down operations at the Conference Center is not the best choice. He believes the proposed move of the Police Department would “Do nothing to support the two hotels the city encouraged developers to build with tax abatements.”

Hotel developer Chan Patel is one area business leader who opposes the plan. Patel received a tax abatement to open a new facility near the Conference Center. He added that the Center is the only 10,000-square-foot facility in Oxford outside of Tupelo.

But Alderwoman Tannehill believes the city no longer can afford to throw good money after bad. “We’ve been going at this (Conference Center support) 12 years and the people who run the Center have done a great job — but we may have bought into a flawed approach,” she said. “Now that we have additional convention facilities at the Inn at Ole Miss and new facilities online with the Marriott on Jackson, competition will only increase our losses and confirm the concept is flawed. I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Andy Knef is HottyToddy.com editor.



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