(March 8, 2013) The reportedly widespread economic panic that gripped city businesses last week after it was suggested that a lucrative cheerleading competition might not be returning to the resort because of changes to the convention center, appears to have largely subsided.
City officials reported this week that the “Reach the Beach” event will be staying in Ocean City for the foreseeable future.
During a conference call between city officials and representatives from cheerleading promoter Epic Brands, “We had the opportunity to discuss the [convention center’s] new auditorium and arts center, and their ability to utilize the space,” Mayor Rick Meehan said.
“I think they feel now that they can be assured that they will have a great spot for the future.”
Further, the design of the convention center’s soon-to-be-built performing arts stage will be tweaked to make the space more usable for the cheer event and others who may be adversely affected by the change to the center’s layout.
“They’re very pleased with what we had to tell them about the changes we could make,” Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino said. “What we’re doing now is taking our existing clients and some who we’ve been trying to bring on board, and see if the performing arts center is going to be a good fit for them.”
An e-mail last week from the event’s organizers, while noting the February competition had generated $600,000 in room revenue, included an ominous note.
“This competition has taken place in Ocean City 25 times and we desperately want this competition to remain in Ocean City!” the message read. “If the proposed changes to the convention center were to be made, we would lose a large portion of floor space that is required to run this competition. Please join us in our efforts to keep these changes from occurring.”
The correspondence caused an airing of grievances amongst local promoters and hoteliers, who said they had suspected for months or even years that the theater project would have a negative effect on the ability of the center to book a wide base of events, but were afraid to say as much publicly because they feared a backlash from the city, which they say seemed to desire to build the prestigious amenity regardless of functionality.
The change of concern is the theater expansion that is scheduled to begin in the fall and which constitutes the second phase of the planned convention center renovation. Consisting of a two-level performing arts atrium with roughly 1,200 seats, the theater will be oriented north-south, with the stage itself on the southern border of what is now the convention center’s central hall ‘C.’
The theater’s balcony seating, vaulted ceiling and fly gallery – the space above the stage itself used for lifting props – will use what is now the rear portion of the second-story convention hall.
In conversations late last week with Epic, Meehan said it became apparent that “they had some concerns about being able to use the space because of the depth o the stage and the height of the proscenium arch [the stage-front opening].”
A quick re-design by City Engineer Terry McGean will widen the arch by 10 feet, from 50 to 60 feet, taking space from the offstage wings.
“[The change] literally just makes the curtain 10 feet wider,” McGean said. “The face of that opening is formed with concrete block walls, they’re like little wing walls. So instead of those being, say, 20 feet wide on each side, they’ll be 15.”
McGean also plans to adapt some of the center’s existing portable platforms to be a stage extension, if needed. The front rows of seating in the theater are not stadium-style, sitting on flat ground, and are removable.
“Now’s the time to find little issues like this out, because it’s a lot easier to erase a wall on paper than it is when it’s built,” McGean said.
During the first phase of the renovation, completed just a few weeks ago, that hall was expanded by enclosing the second-story deck to create a grand ballroom space on the top floor, with panoramic views of the Assawoman Bay. Loading facilities on the bayfront side of the center’s lower floor were also renovated into an additional exhibit hall.
The intent of the two-part renovation was to “first build the replacement space that we were going to lose to the performing arts theater,” said City Councilman and former City Manager Dennis Dare, who was a large part of the process when the expansion was proposed roughly two years ago.
However, there has been some debate over how usable the extra space is, given that the ballroom has now lost over a third of its depth, and the dockside exhibit hall has load-bearing columns that break up the space.
But Noccolino is so far confident his convention clients will be able to adapt. Another meeting with the Sweet Adeline’s voice competition went very well, he said.
And although a representative from the Maryland Association of Counties convention “was apprehensive about changing from ‘c’ hall to the dockside exhibit hall … she deleted ‘c’ hall completely for the upcoming event, to get folks used to the dockside space.” “Even though ‘c’ hall will be available this August, they won’t be using it,” Noccolino said.