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Convention center ballroom officially opens

(Feb. 1, 2013) Ironically, the “big reveal” of last week’s ribbon cutting at the Ocean City convention center was not, in fact, the new $9 million ballroom itself, but an attraction that has been available for free in the resort for centuries: a big, wide view of the bay.

As the blackout curtains were raised on the facility’s west-facing bank of windows around 4:30 p.m., several audible gasps could be heard from those in attendance as a panoramic view of the sunset over the Assawoman Bay, perfectly framed by the ballroom’s glass façade, came into view.

“I felt like we should play the 1812 Overture, but Fager’s seems to have that locked up,” said Con-

vention Center Director Larry Noccolino. Playing Tchaikovsky’s epic orchestration at sunset has been a tradition at Fager’s Island restaurant ever since it became the first major attraction to stake itself on the bay-front in 1975.

Given the gravitas involved, composer Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” (its fanfare was the theme of “2001: A Space Odyssey”) may have been more apropos.

“Forty years ago, everyone told John Fager he was crazy,” said Mayor Rick Meehan, “but here we are. We’ve already had people in the facility, and the response has been tremendous. They’re actually seeing what they’re here to see, which is Ocean City.”

For decades, common wisdom was that major attractions had to be located on the ocean side of the resort in order to garner consistent business, which was the assumption when the city’s convention center was overhauled, expanded and renamed the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in 1996. But as the scope of the facility has grown, the move has been made to take advantage of its location, an asset previously considered to be negligible.

“I believe Dennis [Dare, former City Manager] said that the only way you could see through to the water was if both doors for the freight elevator were open at the same time,” Meehan said.

But whereas the western part of the center’s ground floor was the previously said freight area, it has now been converted into a windowed walkway for displays and exhibitions, dubbed the Trimper Dockside Exhibit Hall. The loading dock has now been relocated to the building’s south side.

The ballroom, located directly above the exhibit area, was created by enclosing the outdoor deck behind the second-story convention hall, creating one enlarged space.

But this arrangement will see further construction again in the fall, as the second part of the convention center’s renovation begins. Of even larger scope than the ballroom project is the upcoming construction of a theater space, a one-two punch of capital improvements that the city only recently got full support for from the state.

In July, it was announced that the Maryland Stadium Authority had re-committed to its partnership with the city in the convention center, where it leases half of the facility’s operations. When the current lease expires in 2014, the state will sign another that obligates it to continue its 50 percent share of the facility’s running expenses through 2034. Additionally, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation allowing the city to borrow against its own 0.5 percent food tax to fund capital improvements in advance.

Further, the state will also be contributing $5.7 million of the estimated $14 million cost of the theater project, which will consist 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, to whose front portion the ballroom was recently added.

“So now we build another wall [at the back of the ballroom], knock out the floor and put in a 1,200-seat auditorium,” Meehan said.

The ballroom project took more than a year, having begun in August 2011. Noccolino said the theater project is expected to take 14-16 months, beginning next fall and ending in the early winter of 2014. Architectural work on both parts has been done by Becker Morgan, and construction by Whiting & Turner.

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