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What the heck is going on with the new convention center?



It was the least popular, most expensive, but heaviest emphasized project in MAPS 3. And now, it is becoming a controversial aspect of the city's future.

Last December, Oklahoma City voters approved sending 1 cent for every dollar of purchases into a special coffer for projects city leaders said would continue to move the community forward. The crown jewel, at least according to the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, is the new convention center and its $280-million price tag.

Land ho!
Power pay
'Now' is the time
Who's counting?

But if everyone thinks all of that money is needed for the construction, think again. A sizable chunk will be used to relocate an electrical substation, which the city will start negotiating with OG&E.

The issue of the new center's location arises, while some City Council members are upset most of the discussions have focused on the center and not the other, more popular projects.

This, in the municipal world, is commonly known as growing pains.

Land ho!
In a tug-of-war that features a multiended rope, designs are already being suggested for the convention center. The mayor has his preferences, the Bricktown folks have theirs. It became a point of emphasis for Rusty LaForge, a member of the MAPS 3 Citizens Advisory Board, designated to help the City Council manage the initiative. Toward the end of the board's last meeting on July 22, LaForge urged for a study on the convention center site to not just focus on only two locations.

"It should be much broader," LaForge said at the meeting.

After looking at the makeup of a subcommittee tasked with the convention center project, LaForge feels his desire will be met.

"I thought it was a very good group with diverse interests," LaForge said. "I think it's evident the mayor has the city's best interest in mind by putting together such a group."

But a close-up look at the subcommittee shows very little interest outside of the downtown and Bricktown areas. Of the nine members, more than half have strong ties to the central part of the city, including Avis Scaramucci, president of the Bricktown Association; John Williams, general manager of the Skirvin Hilton Hotel; Larry Nichols, executive chairman of Devon Energy; Roy Williams, executive director of the Greater OKC Chamber; and Mike Carrier, director of the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau, a division of the chamber.

From that group, a location within the confines of downtown would seem almost certain. Mayor Mick Cornett, who made the subcommittee recommendations to the City Council, believes looking anywhere else is pointless. At the May 27 MAPS advisory board meeting, the mayor suggested two relatively close sites for the center.

"When people say we ought to be completely open-minded about where it needs to go, does that mean we need to consider the fairgrounds or I-240 and Penn?" Cornett asked rhetorically in an interview. "Is that what they're talking about? Do we really want a consultant going around the city looking at the Lucent facility? To me, we need to keep Bricktown and the hotels in mind."

Several hotels dot the downtown area, including the Skirvin, the Sheraton and the Colcord. Jeannette Smith, executive director of the Bricktown Association, said she wants the convention center to be located as close to her district as possible, for access to hotels, dining and entertainment.

At least three studies have been conducted to help determine the best spot for the convention center. The city's Core to Shore plan has worked as the frame for all studies on this topic. The 2008 plan placed the center with an accompanying hotel south across the street from the Ford Center on what will be a new boulevard in the coming years. This location, which is east of the proposed MAPS 3 park, is one of two sites the mayor has pinpointed.

However, a study conducted by the Urban Land Institute earlier this year " with its final recommendations presented to the City Council last week " found the Core to Shore site for the convention center unsuitable.

"Recognizing that more study undoubtedly needs to be done, the (ULI) panel raises concerns about the planned location for the new convention center and recommends consideration of different sites," the report stated, calling the location "very troubling" concerning aesthetics and development.

The site recommended as best, according to the ULI report, was the lumberyard located on the southeast corner of Shields and Interstate 40 (the future boulevard site), east of the Core to Shore convention center site. It is the location preferred from Bricktown businesses south of the Harkins Bricktown Cinemas 16.

"What I don't want to do, and I think what a lot of people are doing in looking at additional sites in the downtown area, in my mind, most of those are landlocked," Cornett said. "It would not allow for the convention center to grow in the future. One of the mistakes we made in retrospect with the Cox Center is that it is landlocked. We can't expand today. These two sites have room to grow."

Besides the location next to the park, Cornett has suggested the area south of Lower Bricktown as a potential convention center site. South of the lumberyard sits the Producers Cooperative Oil Mill, which has put up a price tag of $120 million for the 43-acre site. Still, none of the studies have detailed acquisition costs. It's the reason the advisory board is looking to hire a consultant and commission another study.

"We really haven't hired a consultant to look at this to the depth that we need," Cornett said. "The consultants we hired so far were to kind of give us information for the campaign, or a result of ULI's interest in making sure the Core to Shore site wasn't rubber-stamped. But we really have not hired a consultant to come in and look at all the parameters."

A 2008 HOK Venue study was released through an open-records request last spring. The study's weighted scoring, sponsored by the chamber and conducted by HOK, found the lumberyard property to be the prime location. And while a final site has not been selected, city officials already are having discussions with the property owners.

"Producers would like nothing more than to work with and assist the City of Oklahoma City to ensure that the future goals and plans of the City of Oklahoma City and Producers Cooperative Oil Mill are met," wrote Clint Whitworth, an attorney representing Producers, in an e-mail to assistant city manager Cathy O'Connor.

"I already consider Producers an important partner in the future development of Oklahoma City," O'Connor replied, also stating a study to help determine a site will take several months to complete.

The HOK study also looked at other possible sites for the convention center, including the existing Cox Convention Center site and a parking lot north of E. Main Street.

Power pay
A year ago, the city and OG&E began sharing information concerning the company's facilities on Robinson between S.W. Fourth and Fifth streets. OG&E's property, a substation and housing building, is directly in the path of the Core to Shore convention center site. But even if a different site were chosen, the substation would still be right next to the central park " not a desirable atmosphere for city officials.

"It was going to definitely affect MAPS 3 one way or another," Cornett said.

While the situation with the substation was known before MAPS 3 was put together during Core to Shore, the mayor said the estimated cost " $30 million " was not calculated until days before calling the election.

"The issue was, do we take that $30-million figure and create sort of a ninth initiative? In other words, do we have an OG&E initiative as part of it?" Cornett said. "That didn't seem to fall in line with what we had done with MAPS or MAPS for Kids. Because the convention center " or more specifically, the convention center hotel according to the Core to Shore plan " might sit on that site, I made the decision to put that into the convention center budget and increase it from $250 million to $280 million."

The mayor said he informed the City Council and the chamber of his decision and built a consensus for the proposal.
But the $30 million for the substation can't be found in any MAPS 3 campaign literature. Very little public discussion occurred on the matter, leaving the public in the dark.

"When there were some penetrating questions about the convention center, I volunteered the information," he said. "I think it was an issue that didn't captivate people's attention at the time. People were talking about parks and transit. And whether or not the OG&E substation " no one seemed to want to have a long discussion about it. It was a decision I made, and for those who say it could have been done another way, yeah, it could have."

While city leaders proceeded with the substation portion of the proposal, the final costs and relocation aspects are still to be determined. For OG&E, it's not just tearing down and building a new substation, but also removing and installing transmission lines. OG&E spokesman Brian Alford said final estimates are still unknown.

"We have been talking with the city about the removal of this substation and replacing it with what we have been calling the Crosstown Substation, which would be located in the area," Alford said. "We'll also be locating the transmission lines that serve the area."

He also said the company is working on a new utility plan to upgrade downtown infrastructure.

"As far as projects related to Core to Shore, it is our understanding the city would be paying for that," Alford said.

'Now' is the time
Since it is the most expensive aspect of MAPS 3 " and probably will take the longest to complete " it would make sense to get started on the project as soon as possible. Not so, warn some City Council members.

At the Aug. 17 City Council meeting, MAPS 3 Manager Eric Wenger went before the councilors to get permission to hire a consultant for the initiative. He got their blessing, and a whole lot more. Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman got it started, holding up a notebook as thick as a brick and pointing out the fact that there is lots of information in the convention center section.

"But when I turn the tab on the senior wellness centers, that's all it is: a tab," Bowman said. "I'm concerned projects like the senior wellness centers are getting pushed aside."

MAPS 3 included $50 million for health and wellness aquatic centers for senior citizens.

The convention center is clearly the thrust of the chamber. Shortly after the MAPS 3 vote in December, Carrier sent a letter to City Hall titled "A case for the immediate start of the new convention center project."

"The time to move on this project is now," Carrier wrote.

To emphasize the importance the center, that project was the first MAPS 3 subcommittee to form earlier this month.

"The message from that is, they are ready to move forward," said Tom McDaniel, chairman of the MAPS 3 Citizens Advisory Board and the convention center subcommittee, which held its first meeting Aug. 20.

No other subcommittees for the other projects have been formed or approved by the council.

The mayor said the convention center subcommittee is needed early because it is critical to pick a site as soon as possible.

"What you are hearing is the site for the convention center does need to be determined sooner rather than later, because the transit relies on it," Cornett said.

MAPS 3 will spend $130 million on a downtown streetcar system.

Cornett has pledged a great deal of oversight for MAPS 3. Although the advisory board doesn't have the ability to make legislative changes, Wenger said it will not "rubber-stamp" the process, and its advice will carry weight with the council.

"Just because the media and the chat rooms are talking about the convention center doesn't mean that's what we are talking about at City Hall," he said. "I understand there is some level on controversy, and that's interesting. But I said in the campaign the convention center would not open for 10 years. I still think that is probably going to be right. I have no reason to believe it is going to be built first. If the advisory board comes to us and says we should build it first, I will be surprised."

The MAPS 3 advisory board is set to meet again on Thursday. On the agenda will be an item sent from the convention center subcommittee to begin the process of finding a separate consultant for the center.

Who's counting?
The prioritization of MAPS 3 projects continues to be a hot topic with city officials well after the election.

At the Aug. 17 City Council meeting, a discussion occurred about why the convention center is getting more attention from staff and the MAPS 3 Citizens Advisory Board than the other projects included in the initiative. Ward 4 Councilman Pete White pointed out that the convention center was the least popular item among the projects when polling was conducted last year.

"They (poll respondents) were in favor of the senior wellness centers and the trails, but not in favor of the convention center," White said. "If it wasn't for the other projects, there wouldn't be a convention center."

Oklahoma Gazette/News 9 sponsored a poll conducted by last September on various MAPS 3 projects. The poll found only 27 percent favored a sales-tax extension to fund a new convention center, while outdoor projects like trails and parks received more than 53 percent support.

But Mayor Mick Cornett said other polling showed different results.

"There is a miscommunication about the polling that went into MAPS 3," Cornett said. "The polling I was being supplied access to from the chamber showed the convention center at 51 percent, which was the lowest we allowed on the ballot. The trails were at 62 percent. The Gazette poll gets quoted a lot. I always bring it up because it wasn't the polling I was going by. Nothing got on the ballot that didn't at least get 50 percent."

During the MAPS 3 campaign, the Gazette made repeated requests for the chamber's poll, but that information was not provided.
"Scott Cooper

More coverage:
OKC voters exclusively share opinions on MAPS 3 options

Urban Land Institute report
HOK Study
Core to Shore Plan 2008

top photo Of the $280 million allocated for the MAPS 3 convention center, $30 million may be paid to relocate this OG&E substation. Illustration/Chris Street
middle photo Mayor Mick Cornett. Photo/Shannon Cornman
bottom photo HOK Venue's 2008 site evaluation showed five potential convention center locations.

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