Our View: Event center keys

Posted: January 23, 2013

Assuming that a market feasibility study, authorized 5-0 last week by the city’s Economic Development Authority, validates the need for a conference/events center, where might such a facility be built?

Where it will have the “greatest economic impact,” says Jim Deskins, the EDA’s executive director. That means downtown — or as close to that core district as possible.

“We need to take advantage of our downtown and our historic sites,” Mr. Deskins adds.

OK, could that translate to erecting such a center out by Glen Burnie and the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley? After all, as City Manager Dale Iman told us Friday, the museum is pondering an expansion of its complex and operations.

Mr. Iman stressed that the museum, as an “independent” entity, should embark on such a project, first and foremost, to “meet its own needs” and satisfy its own mission — and not those of the city.

In addition, the Amherst Street location, while close to the city core, may not be close enough to feed off the “synergy” of downtown and fully support that district’s restaurants, shops, and the George Washington Hotel. As Mr. Deskins says, “We want to do this in a way that people don’t have to use their car.” That is, unless they want to.

So, what sites present themselves as possibilities? In The Star’s article last week on the EDA’s approval of the feasibility study, Mr. Deskins mentioned the vacant Winchester Towers building directly across Piccadilly Street from “The George.” And, speaking to us on Friday, he offered the Moose Lodge on Cork Street and the parking lot beside the GW on Cameron Street as options.

The former presents itself as a renovation while the latter would require new construction. But, Mr. Deskins emphasized, no matter where such a center might go, available parking would be critical. We, on the other hand, worry about traffic flow should this center be located smack-dab in the middle of downtown.

To be sure, these are good discussions to have, suggestive as they are of intent and “can-do” spirit. Nonetheless, they do put the cart in front of the horse. The most critical question — and one to be answered by the feasibility study — concerns return on investment. In other words, will a conference/events center prove a going concern?

As Mr. Iman says, the city will be obliged to “look at multiple uses and purposes.” It must, of necessity, be “multifaceted.” Hence, his remark, noted in this space Tuesday, that one doesn’t “build churches [just] for Easter Sunday.”

So, what the feasibility study will indicate is whether the city will, as Mr. Deskins says, have “a commitment to a financial threshold” — i.e., whether a building, financed most likely by revenue bonds through the EDA, will “cover” it own “nut.” Or, translated, generate enough convention/conference business to cover fixed costs.

“Nut-covering,” to be sure, begins at home, with those groups — e.g., the MSV, the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, Valley Health, the Chamber of Commerce, and Shenandoah University — who either spend money on tent rental or go outside the area to accommodate large gatherings and events.

Commitments from these entities are vital . . . before Jim Deskins’ vision of attracting regional, state, and governmental conferences and retreats can be realized.