With a dramatic change to Bowling Green’s convention business potentially on the horizon, the industry remains a vital component of the city’s economic landscape.
The convention business “has a huge economic impact in our region,” said Sherry Murphy, director of the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, a point that was echoed by Bowling Green Mayor Bruce Wilkerson.
“The convention business is vital to the health of our community,” Wilkerson said. “Tourism is a way to provide opportunities to showcase our community to others” with the added benefit of generating revenue for the city.
The city’s efforts in the statewide competition to land conventions was boosted in 1995 when the city opened Sloan Convention Center at 1021 Wilkinson Trace.
But last month, the Convention Center Corp. Board, made up of the Bowling Green City Commission and Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon, unanimously voted to issue a request for proposals for someone to purchase and operate Sloan Convention Center.
Board members said they did not think the city should be competing with private businesses offering meeting spaces.
One such planned private facility is at The Hub development on Lovers Lane. In the works is a 196-room, five-story Embassy Suites hotel with an attached 12,000-square-foot convention center.
Western Kentucky University also operates Knicely Conference Center, and the National Corvette Museum also has a popular meeting space.
The Sloan and other local facilities are also competing with new facilities in other cities, such as the Owensboro Convention Center, which opened in 2013. That center, at 102,000 square feet of available space, is larger than any convention center in Bowling Green. The Sloan is 60,000 square feet, and the Knicely Conference Center has about 70,000 square feet.
“The difference between us and Owensboro is ... they are able to attract” larger events, Convention Center Corp. Board CEO David Hoehner said.
But there are many factors beyond size that come into play when it comes to attracting convention business, Murphy said.
“Meeting needs change over time. The entire industry is ever-changing,” she said, adding that having flexibility in a facility to offer space for things like break-out sessions is increasingly popular.
Some convention center bookers are also looking beyond the facilities themselves to see what else there is to do in a community.
“We are blessed to have so many great and interesting attractions – that’s really where Bowling Green shines,” Murphy said.
As for the benefit of a larger single convention facility, Murphy said “a community needs to continue to grow.”
The importance of convention business to the city is why the RFP includes a provision that the Sloan must stay open as a convention center for at least 25 years.
Sloan Convention Center is funded through event revenue, the Hartland Tax Increment Financing District and from a portion of the hotel-motel tax in the county.
The bonds used to build the center were paid off this year and the Hartland Tax Increment district will be dissolved.
Typically, convention centers are not moneymakers as stand-alone entities but are revenue generators for communities and the hotel industry.
The same is true for the Sloan.
“We’ve never had to subsidize it” with city funds, Hoehner said. “But it’s not a moneymaker.”
Day-to-day management of the Sloan is by Atrium Hospitality, which owns and operates the adjoining Holiday Inn University Plaza hotel, in a contract that runs through 2020.
Atrium Hospitality has the right of first refusal to purchase the center.
The city can also reject any proposal it receives.
“If there are no satisfactory responses, the (Convention Center Corp. Board) will have to make that determination,” Wilkerson said, in which case the Sloan will continue to operate as it has.