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Cheerleaders fuel concerns over theater expansion

(March 1, 2013) When the price tag is $8.3 million, buyer’s remorse can be pretty rough.

An ominous email from the organizer of last month’s lucrative cheerleading competition seems to have made public a long-lingering concern that the upcoming performing arts theater project at the city’s convention center will actually make the facility less marketable.

The email, sent this week to local hoteliers from Epic Brands, the cheerleading promoter that organizes the semi-annual Reach the Beach Rec/School/Dance Competition, details that the massively successful event generated more than $600,000 in room stay revenue alone.

But the message also concludes, “Until a decision is made on the proposed changes to the Convention Center – we are at a standstill!”

“This competition has taken place in Ocean City 25 times and we desperately want this competition to remain in Ocean City! 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.”

Epic Brands officials were unavailable to speak further, but Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino said he was slated to meet yesterday, after press time, with Epic Brands representatives to resolve the conflict.

But several event and lodging industry insiders, who did not wish to be identified, said they had suspected for months or even years that the theater project would have a negative effect, 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 only reason that it’s coming out is because we now have a big client who’s dropping off,” said Ruth Waters of the Harrison Group. “Now that people can see what’s actually going to be done [to the convention center layout], they’re backing out.”

The change of concern is the theater expansion that is schedule 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.

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.

“Next year [when the theater expansion begins] you’re going to have the space you had in the past – you just had a little bit extra this year,” Dare said. “The first floor exhibit area isn’t quite as big as what is being taken out [by the theater] … but it’s more useful.”

But some events seem to have not experienced that utility. Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones said that the recent Seaside Boat Show was hard-pressed to fit its vessels into the first-floor exhibit space, given that the room is dotted with large, load-bearing concrete pillars.

“When the performing arts center was slated, they said, ‘We’ll take the square footage of space that we’re taking away, and we’ll put in a new room downstairs [to match],’” Jones said. “But that room can’t be used for exhibits, at least not in their best setting.”

A spreadsheet, compiled by convention center staff and obtained by this newspaper, lists 33 events that will be adversely affected by the upcoming project. For most of these, the issue seems to be that the second-story ballroom will become less usable once its rear section is blocked off to be used for the upper heights of the theater. The new space, consisting of the new bay-view atrium and a small section of the previous exhibit hall, will apparently lack a room divider.

Noccolino estimated that about a dozen groups or events were in danger of being significantly compromised.

“That doesn’t mean that they’re going to leave town, it means that we’ll have to work with them … each client on an individual basis,” Noccolino said. “We know we’re going to have growing pains.”

This week, Jones said she had been receiving a swell of phone calls from panicked hoteliers who stand to lose considerable off-season business if convention events do indeed dwindle.

“Nobody is against a performing arts center per se, it’s just that maybe they [the city] should’ve been more judicious in looking where to put it,” Jones said.

“I’m all for performance events, but I just don’t want to compromise something we already have that’s already lucrative,” Waters said. “Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

However, Dare submitted that the town’s ultimate goal of bringing more cultural arts events to the resort would still be served by the theater, and that existing events would find a way to incorporate the facility.

“You can always put something in there that’s related [to existing events],” he said. “It’ll be an asset that you’ll find a way to use.”

But many resort business owners were hesitant to experiment with a learning curve that could wreck their off-season viability.

“None of us [in the industry] think it’s a good idea … we live off that convention center in the winter time,” Waters said. “There’s nothing in the pipeline to replace this.”

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