Convention Center Facelift

Rendered view from I-40

Last week the City announced a $175 million renovation of the aged Cook Convention Center.

I’m glad the CVB is seeking to address the problems with the Cook.  These have long been barriers to conventions coming to Memphis.

I’ve looked over the renderings of the planned changes. I’ve also taken a look at this document which outlines the needs and the desired end result.

At first glance, $175 million seems a bit expensive for the changes on tap. Music City Center in Nashville cost $623 million to build from the ground up. Retrofitting a 43 year old building shouldn’t cost a quarter of that.

That said, I’m withholding judgement on the upgrades until I see some real architectural drawings of what’s going to happen. Renderings are nice, but they’re little more than dreams. The way these dreams are implemented is what’s going to matter in the long run.

There are plusses and minuses to going the fixer-upper route here. There are also some real challenges that don’t have anything directly to do with the Convention Center that are holding Memphis back as a convention destination. I’ll talk about a few of those, again, withholding judgement until more information is available.

A Little History

I’ve been involved in the convention business since 2000. I took a 4 year hiatus from working shows full time in 2012 to work in TV news. I came back for a lot of reasons, but mostly because news, from a production standpoint, is like doing the exact same show every day. In event production, every day is a little bit different. You’re still basically doing all the same things you were doing in news, but each day presents a unique challenge. The production business also pays a helluva lot better.

In the 10 years I spent doing traveling events I worked in hundreds locations all over North America. I’ve worked in just about every arena in the US and more convention centers than I can count. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what they do well and what they do poorly (from a production and attendee standpoint).

In 2010, when events nationwide were cancelling left and right due to the economic downturn, I stopped traveling to finish school.

That background in mind, you should also know this isn’t the first time I’ve written about the Cook. In 2008 I wrote this piece about the possibility of a new convention center. That was followed up by this post in 2013.

Look at the second paragraph in that 2013 post:

Kevin Kane of the Memphis CVB told the City Council that the Cook was functionally obsolete

The Cook hasn’t gotten any less “functionally obsolete” than it was in 2013. If anything, its more obsolete than it was back then.

All that said, I’m glad we’re looking at this issue, with some real money behind it for the first time since 2001.

So now, lets look at what the CVB and LRK are proposing.

Re-Imagining a “new” old building

Before I go on, take a look at the slideshow below and think about what is versus what could be.

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There’s no question that the “could be” images are way cooler. But its important to remember that these are just renderings, not real live things. There’s no guarantee that the final product will meet these expectations. That’s not meant as a slight to the CVB or LRK, just reality.

Some of the most important changes happen on the inside:

• A new front lobby.
• New parking situation.
• Easily convertible convention space in the current Expo Hall.
• More “breakout rooms” with new configurations.
• A new dock system that will eliminate the need to use the existing truck elevator.
• A more aesthetically pleasing and functional “South Hall”.
• Better signage
• Generally more inviting.

All of these things are necessary if we want to even start thinking about attracting more outside conventions. Right now we don’t get as many as we should. But there are other structural challenges that are limiting our chances of getting bigger events that don’t have anything to do with the Convention Center.

Rooms, Rooms, Rooms

The single biggest challenge facing the Memphis Convention business…outside of the Convention Center itself, is the number of rooms we have downtown.

Via Pinkowski and Associates

Take a look at this chart from the last MMHLA convention. Memphis has just over 4,000 rooms in the Downtown/Midtown area. Those hotels are running at 70% occupancy. This makes it really hard to find a large block of rooms for conventions coming to the area.

Nashville also has a problem finding room blocks for conventions, but its not because of a lack of rooms. It has more to do with demand being higher than supply. As more rooms come on line in 2018 this should level out some.

The mere announcement of Music City Center in Nashville brought with it thousands of rooms entering the market’s pipeline. Last year there were 5000 mid to upscale rooms in the pipeline for downtown Nashville. And while Nashville is capitalizing on its current “it” city status, there’s little reason to believe that Memphis couldn’t also see hotel room growth with an improved convention experience.

However, the current Memphis Convention center lacks land around the area to build more rooms. The river to the west and high number of Federal, County and City buildings in the area limit available real estate.

What we’ve seen instead is several smaller hotels (100-150 rooms) break ground around Beale and the Peabody. These hotels are primarily focused on transient tourism stays rather than convention business.

That’s a slow boat road to hotel room development.

What’s the Vision?

Nashville chose to build a convention center across the street from Bridgestone Arena. This allows planners to utilize both spaces for very large events.

Fastest route from the Forum to the Cook

For a planner to pull off an event like this in Memphis, a 1.2 mile gap has to be bridged. This presents a huge expense transporting attendees to and from each venue.

There’s no question that Memphis should have some kind of world class welcome to the millions of people who cross the Hernando de Soto bridge every year. But one has to wonder if a Convention center revamp over a mile from the City’s largest venue is the right fit?

For over a decade the city has been promoting Beale St. as a destination. Along with other attractions in the area, one has to wonder why the City isn’t also investing in convention space around this signature street?

There have been no new hotels built around the Cook for a long time (other than the Bass Pro hotel). In recent years most hotel developers have chosen to build in the area around Beale because that’s where they see the most upside. Maybe this trend will change with a new facade and better amenities at the Cook, but as long as the city maintains a split focus (Beale in the south, the Cook in the north) it won’t be able to capitalize on the effort that’s getting the most outside interest.

Focus on the Forum

Detail view of Downtown around FedEx Forum

This is a shot of downtown around the FedEx Forum. The walk south from the Forum features large swaths of surface level parking lots.

There’s no question the Forum needs that parking for events. But you have to wonder if surface level parking is maximizing the property tax and other tax potential of that space?

While all those plots of land may not make up enough space to house a Convention Center, they could house a slew of 200-400 room hotels. That would remove some of the pressure on securing downtown room blocks for conventions, and add capacity for a potential All-Star game at the Forum. The lack of room capacity downtown is one of the biggest barriers to an All-Star game and other large events coming to Memphis.

But building more rooms around the FedEx Forum only compounds the transportation problems inherent with the Cook’s location.

That contradiction is the most troubling aspect of this investment.

Conclusion

While there’s no question the Cook, in its current state, is a barrier to convention travel, I’m not immediately sold on renovating the building. The renovations will help make the building more marketable, but the inherent troubles of the location, and the hotel development trends to the south make it seem like a futile effort.

The 2001 $100 million addition of the Cannon Center and Grand Ballroom didn’t address the real problems with the Cook. It also didn’t bring enough new conventions or hotel development to justify the expense.  Its hard to believe a $175 million dollar effort, 16 years later, will meet expectations or leverage the strengths the city has downtown.

What makes more sense to me (from a convention and place-making perspective) is using this money (and more) to build where the money is going…around the Forum and Beale St.  This would also spur hotel development in the area bringing in more TDZ dollars to fund the new building.

All that said, I understand the political will probably doesn’t exist to pump over half a billion dollars into a new building. There are good reasons for that. It doesn’t matter that the TDZ money can only be used to upgrade the area. Just like the Beale St. Landing imbroglio, people see millions of dollars being spent, and justifiably want to know why we’re spending money on this effort rather than other, more pressing needs.

So while I think there is a missed opportunity here, I also understand why the City and the CVB are pursuing this route. Its the thing we can do without massive upheaval.

Even though it may seem that I’ve made up my mind, I’m still reserving judgement. Perhaps this announcement will be followed by a slew of hotel development in the Pinch and north side of downtown. We saw some of that after the construction of the Pyramid. But I question the durability of that potential development. I also question the durability of renovations to the Cook in the long haul.

The Cook isn’t and hasn’t been an attraction for travelers for decades. Beale street is. Building to leverage the strength of Beale and the Forum makes more sense to me…even if it seems like the impossible dream right now.

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