Maintaining the status quo with Benton Convention Center is a losing proposition, according to consultants who spent two hours Tuesday providing recommendations and doses of reality to local officials.
The Forsyth County Tourism Development Authority and the city of Winston-Salem agreed in September to spend up to $40,000 each to hire Crossroads Consulting Services LLC of Tampa, Fla., to evaluate Benton and produce a priority list and cost estimates. The authority is the governing body for Visit Winston-Salem.
“There is no doubt the convention center has fallen behind (its competitors in the state), and sticking with the status quo will only decrease the number of events and revenue generated,” said Susan Sieger, Crossroads’ president.
The center opened in 1969 at a cost of $3.05 million and has developed a reputation for appearing dated. The most recent significant facelift was October 2006, when the city paid $2.6 million for renovations that included new carpeting, landscaping, a new entrance, an outside electronic sign, an upgraded sound system and a wireless Internet system.
Crossroads and two other consulting groups recommended short-, mid- and long-range renovation strategies that could cost $3.3 million for the short range, $8.9 million for the mid range and as much as $23.9 million for the long range. The $23.9 million would include projects done in the short- and mid-range stages.
Separately, about $225,000 has been designated by the city to improve the wireless connectivity at the center. The Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce considered moving its annual Business Expo from the center this year until receiving assurance of wireless connectivity improvements at the aging facility.
Tackling all the recommendations at one time likely would take 30 to 36 months to complete, the consultants said. It also likely would require a bond referendum to pay for it, according to City Manager Lee Garrity.
Garrity said he did not know what level of priority the recommended renovations would be given by the city considering officials already have identified about $400 million in potential capital improvement projects.
“There are some really good recommendations here that we can take to the Public Assembly Facilities Committee for review (in March),” Garrity said. Garrity said it could take until the new fiscal year for the City Council to formally discuss the recommendations and set priorities.
Crossroads’ top short-term recommendations are replacing the carpet, reconfiguring the South Main Street side of the top floor to yield more meeting room space, improving the streetscape around the building and adding more ceiling lighting befitting large ballroom settings.
Mid-range priorities are adding glazing and liner to the north and Cherry Street façades, removing the dividing wall between North Main and South Main ballrooms (creating a 30,000-square-foot space), installing a new public-address system, renovating concession stands and making some energy-efficiency moves with heating and windows.
For the long term, recommendations included a major renovation of the exterior, lowering the floor in the second-floor South exhibit area to match those in the North exhibit area and creating a more uniform design to meeting rooms.
“There is opportunity in newness that would generate more events, more direct and indirect jobs, more tax revenue and more excitement about downtown,” Sieger said. “What we’ve offered is priorities based on cost and timeline implementation.”
The study determined the city would be able to lower the center’s operating loss from $957,000 a year to $788,000 a year with the short-range fixes, to $696,000 with the mid-range fixes and to $617,000 with the long-range fixes.
It projected the center would experience a 14 percent to 31 percent increase in annual events from the current 201, as well as a 19 percent to 38 percent increase in attendees, or from 75,870 to 105,430.
Total economic spending related to center events could rise from $29 million now to $38.4 million with the short-range fixes and up to $45.1 million with the long-range fixes. There also is a projection of gaining up to 170 direct and indirect jobs in addition to the current 290.
“We want to work within the existing infrastructure, not making it larger,” said Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem. “What things can we realistically do given the economy, and what will provide an immediate return on those investments?”
Mayor Allen Joines has said one reason Winston-Salem agreed to pay for half of the Benton consultant’s fee is “we need to know the scope of the work needed for a long-term fix.”