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As petition deadline nears, city prepared to take risk for arts

(Nov. 1, 2013) With fewer than three weeks to go before the signature-gathering deadline, the controversial petition to halt borrowing for construction at the convention center continues to dominate conversation at City Hall.

The local activist group known as Ocean City Taxpayers for Social Justice has until Nov. 20 to gather the 1,226 signatures needed to bring the $8.5 million portion of this year’s bond issue to referendum. But adherents and critics of the project have clearly dug in their heels on the matter, with OCTSJ headman Tony Christ decrying the town’s “tyrannical” decision-making process while Mayor Rick Meehan referred to Christ’s effort as “irrational” and “obstructionist.”

Despite the immediate rivalry – and costs – involved, what has received less play is the reality of what will actually happen to the convention center’s business once the project is finished.

The city’ decision to move forward with building a performing arts theater in the convention center, made roughly two years ago, was based on a study completed in July, 2010 by Crossroads Consulting Services.

Once it was found that the study showed the project could be effective, its details were largely forgotten, with one responsible official admitting this week that they hadn’t seen the document in over a year. Other private-sector leaders said they had never seen the report to begin with.

The document itself does not give either a glowing endorsement or a damnation of the project, but instead predicates the project’s success on a number of conditions that the city will have to work hard to achieve – although Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino is confident that they are within reach.

The study follows a 2008 facilities assessment done on the center, where it was determined that “market analysis suggested that a multi-purpose auditorium would be more complementary to convention center uses than a high-end dedicated performing arts center.”

At what point this philosophy was reversed is not clear. The report goes on to recommend the favorability of the project, based on the projection that the 1,200-seat theater space will be able to attract more new venues than it sacrifices due to it replacing open hall space.

“Are we going to get Lady Gaga in here? No, that wouldn’t work, unless everyone is willing to pay $500 a ticket,” Noccolino said. “But what I had success with at Valley Forge [Noccolino’s previous post] was attracting those up-and-coming regional acts.”

According to the report, conventions and trade shows have historically accounted for the majority of the center’s attendance, with 220,000 attendee-days out of the nearly 400,000 logged for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. Further, 41 percent of conventions and 75 percent of trade shows over that period used all three halls. The third hall – “Hall C” – will be replaced with the theater.

As part of the overall plan, however, the city enclosed the deck of the convention center last year to create an upstairs ballroom that  compensates for the open space lost to the theater.

The Crossroads study notes that “event producers indicated that the ballroom’s location on the second floor may preclude some large item trade shows and consumer shows (e.g. autos, boats, etc.) from utilizing this new space for their exhibits.”

This creates somewhat of a new paradigm for the convention center, although Noccolino said most past users of Hall C will be able to use the theater in some capacity, so that the venue will not be starting from scratch.

“The groups that are already in house and under contract have also expressed interest,” he said. “At this point, we’re really looking at 20-30 open slots for performers out of the whole year.”

The other major question in the study is whether the projected incremental increase in business from new events will actually be as attractive as anticipated.

According to the study, the consultants ascertained from the town’s Cultural Arts Advisory Committee the type of events they would project for the space. One such act that was found to be suitable was the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, which Noccolino is already anticipating.

“We’re already going to open up with Julian Benichou and the MSO,” Noccolino said. “I’m entertaining an offer right now from him for an entire concert series with the MSO.”

However, the study also notes that booking will be difficult given the theater’s size and location relative to other venues, particularly the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center.

“We don’t want to go up against the competition, but the competition doesn’t want to go up against us,” Noccolino said. Regionally based acts would be supplemented by those who were passing between larger venues, he noted.

If the theater is filed as predicted, the study indicates that the convention center would see a $200,000 to $240,000 increase in incremental revenue, and an additional $1 to $1.2 million in tourism impact to hotels and restaurants. However, this assumes 72 to 86 performances per year, with half being performances and concerts attracting 900-1,000 people, and half being smaller speaking events or seminars of roughly 500 in attendance.

“I think a good example of that would be [popular psychic] John Edwards. We got 750 people with only a four-month lead,” Noccolino said. “It doesn’t take long for word to get around.”

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