Study affirms need for Bentonville convention center

July 27, 2015

Summary: A team that included Convergence Design is recommending a 250,000 gross square foot convention center for the market, given the presence of the world's largest retailer and a number of other major corporations. Convergence Design helped to identify possible sites and test building footprint for the facility.

BENTONVILLE -- Bentonville can support a 254,100-square-foot, $110 million multiuse convention center, despite its population being just more than 40,000 people, according to a feasibility study.

The center would recapture corporate meetings and other events that take place outside the region because there isn't room to hold them here, said Rob Hunden, president of Hunden Strategic Partners. It would also bring in other, new events like consumer trade shows, he said.

Meeting facilities

Top three local meeting facilities based on square feet include:

• John Q Hammons Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center, Rogers — 72,147

• Holiday Inn and Convention Center, Springdale — 45,192

• Metroplex Event Center, Rogers — 25,300

Source: Hunden Strategic Partners

The Advertising and Promotions Commission has talked about the need for a convention complex for the last five to six years, said Kalene Griffith, Visit Bentonville president and CEO. Commissioners waited until recently to do a feasibility study because they wanted to see where the downtown growth would go, she said.

The commission hired Hunden Strategic Partners in the spring to conduct the study for $53,000.

The next big steps are to look at funding and location options, Griffith said.

"You can't do anything if you don't have funding. You can't do anything if you don't have a location," she said. "You can't have a plan without those being identified."

Possible funding options were not included in the feasibility study.

Hunden's report recommends about a 254,000-square-foot building that includes a 27,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 27,000-square-foot flex hall, 27,000-square-foot grand ballroom, 33,300 square feet of meeting rooms and 139,700 square feet of "other space."

A minimum 200-room, full-service hotel was also recommended on the site, which would need to be at least 20 acres. That space would also include parking.

The combined project cost estimate is $153 million with the convention center costing $110 million and the hotel $43 million.

The study predicts that the center would bring in about $7.4 million in collected taxes over a 10-year period. The construction impact is expected to be more than $170 million in labor and materials.

Northwest Arkansas and the companies in it have grown quickly, but the meeting market has not kept up, Hunden said.

"Your supply is constrained and your demand has grown," he said.

Communities looking to build a convention center typically do so to draw people and events into town, but it's the reverse for Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas, Hunden said. The center would help meet the demand that's already here.

The John Q. Hammons Center at Embassy Suites in Rogers is the largest facility that offers convention space in Benton County. It has 72,147 square feet of convention space.

David Lang, general manager at Embassy Suites, said he hasn't read the feasibility study and was surprised about the talk of bringing another convention center into the area.

Arkansas is a small market in population size, but there's a lot of convention space available per capita, he said, talking about facilities in Little Rock, Hot Springs and Fort Smith in addition to the Hammons Center.

It would be a challenge for two to operate in Northwest Arkansas, he said.

The Springdale Holiday Inn and Rogers Metroplex Event Center also host large shows, but are insufficient because of location, size and lack of amenities, according to the study.

One of the biggest challenges for establishing a convention center in Bentonville will be finding the right location. Officials looked at about a dozen sites of varying sizes, but most wouldn't be large enough unless the complex is built "Manhattan-style," meaning vertically, said David Greusel with Convergence Design, which assisted with the study.

The location has to be viable or the project won't work, said Galen Havner, a commissioner. That may mean tearing something down to build something new, he said.

"It needs to be near where things are going on," he said.

The study was presented to commissioners at their June meeting and will be discussed again at their August meeting, which is traditionally when strategic planning is the focus.

Melissa Gute can be reached at mgute@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWAMelissa.

NW News on 07/27/2015

Go to http://www.nwaonline.com/news/2015/jul/27/study-affirms-need-for-bentonville-conv/

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