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Pro-Conference Center Groups Make Compelling Case



Every speaker who rose to address the Board Of Aldermen on Dec. 16 spoke in passionate support of continuing convention and tourism operations at the Oxford Conference Center.

That group included representatives from the University of Mississippi, local real estate practitioners, the incoming Chamber of Commerce president, and the manager of the catering firm that serves the Conference Center.

Dr. Mahmoud Elsohly, a professor of pharmaceuticals at Ole Miss and organizer of frequent conventions hosting drug abuse and drug testing experts from around the country, conceded that the Conference Center may be unable to be self-sufficient financially. But Professor Elsohly added, “When you consider all the services the Center provides, it’s very important to the city. Hundreds of people from outside of town who would attend our conferences will be affected if the Center closes down in 2014.”

While acknowledging that the City’s goal is to keep the Conference Center open and mitigate financial loses, Mayor Pat Patterson said: “Our job is to step up and look the truth in the face.” The mayor added that under any worst-case scenario, he expected the Pharmacy School conferences would take place.

Carter Hitt, an attorney representing local hotel developer Chan Patel, pointed out in his remarks that Patel is interested in taking over Conference Center operations, but hopes to be a constructive force in whatever decision the City makes. Hitt said 88 hotel rooms have been added at the Hampton Inn and 95 more are planned for the new Marriott.

See the HottyToddy.com story regarding Patel’s official proposals.

Troy Smillie, a senior research scientist at Ole Miss’ National Center for Natural Products Research, said that his group tried to use University facilities in the past, but quickly outgrew the available meeting spaces. “It’s impossible to conduct conferences with concurrent sessions engaging 250-275 people on campus,” Smillie said.

Smillie said the Conference Center staff “has been working hard for us. We estimate that our conferences brought in $327,000 spent on catering, Conference Center fees, and hotels.”

In response, Mayor Patterson said, “You’re our flagship. If we had your group 40-45 times a year, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Kathy Knight, chair of Ole Miss’ Nutrition and Hospitality Management Department, stressed the Conference Center’s involvement in City and University events, which in turn help train students from her discipline. Knight said the University has the faculty experts to conduct high-quality market research on the Conference Center operation. “Will the food and hospitality tax continue if the Conference Center is closed?” Knight asked.

Mayor Patterson replied that the tax is established by the legislature and supports a number of tourism related activities, including FNC Park.

Lee Meek, president of the Ole Miss Quarterback Club, said the organization has 2,700 members in 30 states. “We have two fundraisers a year that are held at the Convention Center,” Meek explained. “On Signing Day, we have 600 people in one meeting. If we lose it (the Conference Center) it changes everything we do for our members. The University as an alternative is not feasible.”

The Association Executive Officer for the North Central Mississippi Board of Realtors represents 250 members from five counties. Linda Allgood said she hosts six meetings a year including sessions for continuing education for members. “The attendance at our meetings vary regularly from 40-80 people and the Conference Center staff have accommodated us superbly,” Allgood said.

One of the most passionate advocates for the Conference Center claimed he would have opposed any extra support measures just a few years ago. Realtor and former Conference Center Board member Andrew Stephenson said he has learned just how much the Center brings to this community, and how much potential it has to bring more revenues and visitors.

“We now have the ability to have larger conferences because of the additional hotel rooms in the pipeline,” Stephenson said. “We lost several (big conventions) in the past because we didn’t have the hotel rooms. Now we’re getting the hotel rooms and considering shutting down the only resource with the space to host conferences. We should be meeting to plan how to improve tourism and convention business, not shut it down.”

Stephenson added, “We know they want to come — organizations like the Mississippi Association of Teachers. Oxford is a unique place and we should be talking about creating the opportunities for large conventions to come here — not closing down the only space large enough to host them. We must do everything we can to keep this facility open. We’ll never get the funds to open another facility like this here.”

Mayor Patterson responded to Stephenson saying: “Yes, we should build one right with the right ceiling height. The business model is broken. We can’t ask the staff to work harder — they’re doing everything they can. We can’t make chicken salad out of chicken …..” The mayor’s voice trailed away not completing the analogy, but the crowd acknowledged their understanding with nervous laughter.

Alderwoman Janice Antonow pointed out that the City subsidizes other projects and facilities that don’t make money. Museums, for example. “What is the acceptable number?” she asked the mayor, referring to annual loses on the Conference Center.

Butch Scott, catering manager at the Conference Center, said it is dong what it was designed to do, generate economic income for the whole city. Cites another study 400 plus events 26,000 attendees. Travel of people to these events generates $250 a night.

Scott rose to say bottom-line profit numbers are not the point.  “The Conference Center provides a vital service to the city,” he said. “In fact, the operation there has become more efficient over the last couple of years, reducing the percent of tax subsidies the operation requires.

“It’s no secret the facility was mismanaged the first eight years,” Scott said. “This session should be about improving the operation, not closing it. Allow the Conference Center to continue to do the job it was built for — generate income for the city.”

Scott pointed out that the facility is not really funded by the City’s general fund in any event, since it’s the people who come here to eat and drink — mostly students and visitors who fund the food and hospitality taxes. These funds, like the Conference Center, said Scott, are directly designed to promote tourism. Scott received a loud ovation when he concluded his remarks.

Jon Maynard, incoming Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, described the Center as not just a place to have meetings — but a place to grow Oxford by bringing together highly trained people in cooperation with the University.

“It’s a place to recruit people for jobs in areas like pharmaceuticals and engineering,” Maynard said. “The Conference Center helps us grow opportunities in a creative way. Conferences are our best opportunity to get people to come to Mississippi — which is also our greatest challenge. When they meet our people here in Oxford and at Ole Miss, they’re often convinced this is a fantastic place to live and work and raise a family.” 

Maynard concluded with a point that seemed to move the audience: “Just because an enterprise doesn’t make money, doesn’t mean it has no value,” he said.

Alderwoman Robyn Tannehill brought the meeting to a close commenting that the preferred option was to keep the Conference Center operating. She added, however,  “What we’re doing right now is not working. No options are off the table.”

– Andy Knef is the editor of HottyToddy.com. Contact Andy at andy.knef@hottytoddy.com.

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