By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
---- — If someone wants an indication of how not to approach building a convention center, look no further than Muncie.
With its massive exhibition hall, no nearby hotel and a lack of restaurants and bars within easy walking distance, Muncie’s convention center is suffering from a lack of use, said Rob Hunden, the Carmel-based consultant who Monday proposed a much different approach for Kokomo.
Call it the next phase of Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight’s downtown master plan.
Hunden, hired by the Kokomo visitors bureau to research the possibility of adding a hotel/convention facility to the emerging mix in downtown, said Monday the right facility would draw visitors to the area without sacrificing the hotels along Ind. 931.
He envisions a 150-room hotel and restaurant, rising several stories from the mostly vacant block between Main and Union streets north of the Wildcat Creek, combined with around 13,000 feet of meeting and ballroom space.
Rough estimates put the cost of such a facility at around $25 million, and Hunden said in all likelihood, public funds would be needed to cover about half of the cost. By comparison, the Ivy Tech Kokomo Event & Conference Center has about 35,000 square feet of space.
For the investment, Kokomo would get a well-decorated facility, not overly vast, but suitable for weddings, reunions, sports, entertainment, religious and fraternal events. Most importantly, the space would be connected to a hotel.
Kokomo currently has 10 hotels, the most recent built in 1998. Three of the hotels have been renovated in the past decade, including two renovated just last year. None of the hotels is connected to any of the four banquet/gathering spaces located in Kokomo.
He said Kokomo could add a new hotel downtown and, if the number of rooms was kept below a certain threshold, the convention center traffic would be heavy enough to force visitors to seek out other hotels for accommodation.
Building the facility downtown would be crucial, Hunden said, because of the uncertainty facing the Ind. 931 corridor, now that the new U.S. 31 bypass is drawing traffic away from the highway.
“We feel that 931 is a real challenge for the city,” Hunden said. “If anything, this is going to diversify your offerings and bring people into town.”
Hunden confessed to being somewhat skeptical about the downtown area until he learned more about the momentum generated by new downtown establishments and the YMCA and city-backed parking garage/apartment project.
With the news this week of a comedy club and a pizzeria opening soon along Sycamore Street, there’s more evidence a pedestrian-friendly restaurant and bar district is starting to form downtown.
Kokomo, he said, is like a lot of places which struggle against preconceived notions.
“Once you introduce this alternate reality to them, it’s a game changer. It’s a head turner,” he said. “Anybody who hasn’t been there has no conception of what it is, and once they come and visit, they say, ‘This is great.’”
Chris Hamm, interim director of the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, cautioned the block between Union and Main might not be the final location of the project and said the next step will involve serious discussions as to whether to perform an impact study to get more in-depth data on how much economic activity the project could generate.
A final decision and a ground-breaking could be two years of planning away; Hunden’s projections showed estimates for a 2017 opening.
The city of Kokomo, the likely source of any financial support, would ultimately decide the fate of the project, and Hamm warned that a big “litmus test” would come when and if the city moves to secure private funding.
The city likely would need to partner with one of the four major U.S. hotel chains. Hunden showed examples of hotel/convention space built in Enid, Okla., and Tupelo, Miss., as public-private partnerships involving firms like Doubletree and Hilton.
The old Northern Indiana Supply Company warehouse buildings are also apparently not being considered for inclusion in phase one of the project. Hunden said the age, the structural condition and the repeated flooding of the buildings are issues.
Hunden said the big recommendation of the study is to “start small, with things we know will work,” and leave bigger plans — such as a grand exhibition hall or an arena — for what he called “phase two.”
“You don’t have to build a big box,” he said. “Muncie has this big, empty building without any hotels nearby and a downtown that isn’t that compelling.”
Scott Smith is on Twitter @JasonSSmith1 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org