Barker: Old school is not suitable for a community and conference center

Friday, Sept. 7, 2018 1:54 PM
David Holub - Special to the Herald

Over the last few days, I have had many friends ask me what I thought about the idea of using the 9-R building for a conference and performing arts center. Looking back over the past 30 years, I have been involved in many discussions about the issue of a Durango conference and events center.

In this small, geographically constrained place, the discussion often starts with the location. This is natural in Durango because there are not very many options to the location dilemma. This is probably why we don’t have a conference center today.

Rod Barker

Barker: Old school is not suitable for a community and conference center

Rod Barker

There are two reasons to have a conference and events center. Typically, the first is that the community needs a gathering place for locals to hold concerts, high school proms, chamber luncheons, gem and mineral show exhibits, and other civic presentations and gatherings. Let’s call that the civic center concept.

The second reason is to bring people into town as an economic generator for hotel rooms, retail shops and restaurants during the softer business times of our shoulder seasons. We should call this the conference center concept.

Many communities find ways to use one building for both concepts. We can call this a community conference center.

There are some assets needed for a civic center that are different from a conference center, so when the two are married, the resultant building is usually bigger and perhaps costlier than to build for just one purpose.

A conference center should be designed to meet the needs of both social and business groups that want to travel to a fun or convenient destination to meet and communicate. While much of this is done on the internet, there is still a high degree of interest in going somewhere new and fun that will draw people to Durango.

These centers must be within walking distance of multiple convention-grade hotels or have a hotel as a part of the facility so that it is easy to coordinate the meetings.

It must be supported with a conveniently timed shuttle service between hotels and the facility so that conference attendees can leave their cars at their hotel. This also greatly cuts down on parking requirements.

It must have breakout rooms to facilitate multiple discussions at the same time. It should have the ability to accommodate more than one large group at the same time because it is very common for two groups to overlap by one or two days.

It should be able to accommodate groups of 300 to 600 people with their meal requirements. It must be able to be booked years in advance and must be supported by a professional convention and visitors bureau with sales and support staff who are trusted by professional meeting planners.

It must be able to coordinate the efforts of a food and beverage staff that can also attend to audio-visual needs for presentations and entertainment requirements.

It must be able to charge competitive fees to cover costs of services and assess fees to hotels to cover some of the costs.

A community center is designed to meet the needs of the community to gather and communicate their shared interests in arts, business, culture, heritage and local commerce. These facilities must have a large amount of parking to facilitate locals who will arrive with their car or must be able to shuttle those residents from satellite parking locations.

A community center should have, at a minimum, a kitchen to allow local caterers to service the facility when food service is needed.

It also needs a stage in a room with excellent acoustical properties to allow for performance and presentation options.

Community centers are usually funded solely by the community because they don’t normally provide an income to sustain themselves. They are booked by local entities with the relatively short lead of two to six months, by a city government booking agency with no requirement for a professional sales effort. Community centers also must be sensitive to cost constraints of local nonprofit groups and associations.

In previous iterations of our community’s focus on conference and community center needs, the 9-R building surfaced as a candidate.

While the 9-R administration building is beautiful, it is not laid out in a manner that would be cost-effective to develop into a convention or community center without a very large amount of demolition and reconstruction. And it is not within walking distance of any of our convention-grade hotels, so it would be a very poor choice for a convention center.

While the 9-R site is a very valuable piece of land with an iconic structure, it should only be considered for a community center.

For Durango to make meaningful progress on a shared conference and community center, a site must be found that can offer a marketable and cost-effective building platform and support a short-term affordable booking process for community events and a fully-funded professional convention and visitors bureau.

There must be downtown hotels that will commit to a booking strategy, and a facility that can double in the support of arts and arts-related educational components. The community must be supportive of allowing the lodging community or perhaps the Business Improvement District to take the lead role in the booking and marketing of this space.

To pay for this endeavor, a combination of tax incremental financing and a dedicated increase to the lodgers tax seems most viable.

The reason that the distinction between conference center and civic center is so important is that a conference center brings revenue to help pay for civic interests and the business done there helps defray the cost of the infrastructure, but the trade-off in services must be fully understood by the community to avoid conflicts later on.

To have a civic center supported by the full infrastructure of a conference center is a very valuable thing. Once a civic center is built without a conference center component, it would be very unlikely that any city would have the appetite to pay for a conference center later unless it was a part of a private entity like the one that the Southern Ute tribe built at the casino.

The reason that I feel that it is so important to understand why the 9-R building is not a good fit is that we could spend a lot of time and money chasing after a less valuable asset and not get what we need for the long run.

Our town cannot afford to make such a mistake. We will only get one shot at getting it right.

I have spent much of my life getting to understand the nature of the hotel and travel business with the different components such as tourism, conference and business travel.

It is easy for a community to assume that all travelers come here for the same reason or that we attract them using the same mechanism – and it couldn’t be further from the truth.

We must make our decisions from a well-informed base of understanding and be sure to put into place all of the infrastructure needed to make both operations successful and cost-effective.

Rod Barker is the president and CEO of the Strater Hotel. He was on the Colorado Tourism Board for two four-year terms and was its chair for two years.