Tuesday, September 26, 2000

City loses out on big convention

Downtown center not large enough

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati is poised to lose a large, lucrative John Deere convention that promises more than 14,000 hotel room bookings because the Albert B. Sabin Convention Center isn't large or versatile enough to handle two groups at once.

        Moline, Ill-based Deere Co. picked Cincinnati as one of two possible sites for a five-week convention in 2002, but local convention planners were unable to promise the farm equipment manufacturer space because of a scheduling conflict with a church group.

        In a letter to convention center planners, John Deere said it would look elsewhere if it was not guaranteed space by Sept. 15 for its annual new-product convention.

        “John Deere will commit to Cincinnati only if the dates of Aug. 4-Sept. 11, 2002 can be made available to us,” wrote John Deere's Dean C. Hungate, marketing information administrator. “If you are unable to free up those dates, we will no longer be committed to Cincinnati and will look at another city after a 10-day period beginning Sept. 5.”

        The Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau, which tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Progressive National Baptist Convention to reschedule or modify its convention needs, does not expect to hear from John Deere until later this month. That's when the company visits Louisville, the other Midwest city vying for the convention.

        Officials for John Deere and the Louisville convention center did not return phone calls Monday.

        “To say it looks good is not accurate,” said Mike Wilson, president of the Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This is a pretty good example for the need of an expansion of our convention center.”

        Hotel managers and oth ers who lobbied for the John Deere convention said Cincinnati will continue to lose lucrative meetings until the convention center expands.

        “We have lost countless conventions and trade shows,” said Gary Wachs, general manager of the Garfield House Suite Hotel. “It's very frustrating when you spend millions and millions improving (downtown) and you don't let conventions come here.”

        John Deere wanted to book two halls totaling 137,000 square feet from Aug. 4 through Sept. 11.

        John Deere predicted the convention would require 14,660 room nights — one room occupied one night.

        Convention officials had previously agreed to rent the same convention space to the Progressive Baptist National Convention from Aug. 5 to Aug. 10, 2002.

        Steve Stickford, vice president of convention sales for the Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he offered incentives to the Baptist group to modify or reschedule. The group wasn't able to alter its schedule, Mr. Stickford said.

        The convention center can't accommodate both groups, with only 162,000 square feet in meeting space available.

        Mayor Charlie Luken formed a task force this year to revive a $334.9 million proposed expansion.

        The group agreed the center should add at least 350,000 square feet and stretch west over Interstate 75. Last month, the task force agreed to pursue a package of public and private funds.

        Cincinnati has committed $50.8 million in bonds to the project. A city room-tax increase would raise $17.9 million, but it would take effect only after private businesses kick in $20 million. Other funding sources include $10 million in marketing funds from Kentucky and Indiana, $34.7 million from a proposed county hotel tax increase and $45 million in state loans and grants.

        But county officials, worried about paying for new stadiums for the Bengals and Reds, have been reluctant even to talk about approving a hotel tax increase to fund the convention center.


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