HomeBusinessOPINION: Practice the pause on event center

OPINION: Practice the pause on event center

Like everyone in Jackson, I was rejoicing last week when the big announcement was made that the Service Merchandise building could be coming down. Who wouldn’t be excited to get rid of that eyesore?  While I am aware of how much Jackson could benefit from a convention center, I am extremely concerned about the announcement of an implied plan to build one on that site without any apparent thought to the long-term viability. As a taxpayer, I encourage Mayor Conger and the City Council to push the pause button.

The implied decision to build a convention center in that spot seems rushed and haphazard. If I heard correctly, that tract of land is costing the City, i.e. the taxpayers, $4 million. It’s going to cost hundreds of thousands to demolish that building and get the land ready for its next phase. On top of that, it will cost millions more to build a new facility, update the infrastructure to support it, pay the engineers and architects, etc. With tens of millions of dollars on the line, why the rush? If City leaders want to invest in a convention center, do it right and with forethought and intentionality.

During the press conference to announce this big news, Mayor Conger referenced the One Jackson Civic Master Plan as the reason to put a convention center in this location. This 2015 plan (which is available at jacksontn.gov on the Planning Department’s page) was simply a guide for future decision-making for everything from crosswalks, underground utilities and roundabouts. Regarding the Old Hickory area, it stated, “The best potential redevelopment scenario for the Jackson Plaza site would be an area attraction that would bring visitors or patrons to the area, complementing Old Hickory Mall and other nearby retailers. Possible uses include an entertainment facility (Top Golf, Main Event or Dave and Busters type of attractions), convention/civic center, or a concern/event or recreation facility.” As you can see, it simply mentioned this as a possible option for the site, which is why more work needs to be done before making that decision.

The first step should NOT be to initiate a master plan contract with an architectural and engineering firm. It should be to engage a consulting firm that specializes in convention centers to do a market study to examine potential locations throughout Jackson, assessing factors such as facility size, location, configuration, and general feasibility.  This firm would have extensive experience and understand all of the moving parts that need to be present for a convention center to be a financially successful venture. As a professional who attends numerous conferences every year, I know that the conference center layout and nearby amenities are very important to recruiting successful conferences. An experienced consulting firm can guide this process and take these key elements into consideration, such as an attached hotel with others nearby; local restaurants and entertainment options within walking distance – not fast food chains but nice local restaurants; flexible room configurations; abundant restrooms; catering requirements; etc.

After the consulting firm has completed the study, a committee needs to be assembled by the Mayor including tourism professionals, interested citizens, City Council members, hospitality business representatives, people who actually travel to conferences, and Chamber officials. This team needs to visit convention centers that are similar to what Jackson needs in order to understand what ingredients make a facility successful. Then, the team needs to work closely with the consulting firm and develop a solid, long-term plan for Jackson’s convention center and related growth.

Funding is also a major consideration. City officials have worked very hard to get us on solid financial footing. Why in the world would they want to jump into this venture without a clear plan? What are the funding sources to build the facility? How will the ongoing costs of such a facility be funded? Who will handle the management and maintenance? All of these are questions that need to be answered before any dirt is moved. City officials have been talking for years about how the City loses money every year operating the Civic Center and Fairgrounds. Are there ways for us to have a nice convention center that is profitable? Could the City partner with a private business to own and operate a quality convention center in exchange for tax breaks? These questions need to be answered before any plans are drawn or concrete is poured.

A convention center would be an asset for the City of Jackson and is definitely needed. If we had a well-planned convention center, we could see increased tourism during the week for conferences and conventions, and local events like the Blue Suede Dinner, Dancing with the Stars and the Jackson Symphony could flourish. That’s why it is so important that our city officials get it right. They don’t need to stop the process. Just proceed with caution, involve professionals who know what they’re doing, explore fiscally-responsible options, develop a solid plan and understand that doing it right will mean great things for this city. However, doing it wrong could be catastrophic.

American theologian Fulton Sheen once said, “Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is ‘timing.’ It waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.”

Mayor Conger and Jackson City Council members, I implore you to practice the pause, exercise patience and move forward with a new convention center the right way.

Hope Cooper is an alumna of Union University, long-term Jackson resident and graduate of Leadership Jackson and WestStar Leadership Program.

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