We have to stop chasing other cities like Nashville, and focus on who we are as a city, the assets we have in place, and what we do well. More rumblings about building a new convention center have skewed this focus. If we don’t save and build on what we already have we risk losing it all. We should act now to leverage existing assets to dominate the lucrative small to medium-sized conference market.
Even if local governments could come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to design and build a new convention center without seriously endangering our credit rating or pulling money from other deserving projects, building it would create new blight spreading out from the Cook Convention Center. It would do nothing to repurpose the now vacant Peabody Place Mall. We are wasting valuable time and energy by continuing to form committees and finance studies on this idea that must be abandoned.
Conference planners want to come to Memphis. Our globally recognized brand appeals to the companies they represent. They like that we have the Mississippi River, Beale Street, barbecue, music and an authentic, unique vibe and population. According to the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the biggest problem in recruiting and retaining convention business is not Memphis, or even our tired convention facilities, but rather that we need more downtown hotel rooms under common control for easy, convenient bookings. Today, conventions of any size coming to Memphis must negotiate with several hotel operators and spread their attendees around town.
The CVB says most of the meeting planners for medium size conferences require 800 hotel rooms under one roof. The Peabody has 464 rooms. The Sheraton connected to the Cook Convention Center has 600. While it is no small order to ask a hotel developer to build another 200 rooms by Cook or 340 at Peabody Place, it is a vastly more attainable goal than building a giant center from scratch along with a new convention center hotel.
The first thing we should do is obtain long-term commitments from hometown companies like FedEx, IP, Medtronic and AutoZone to hold a certain number of conferences in Memphis if we provide the rooms and facilities they require. With those commitments and targeted tax incentives in hand — along with a pledge not to build a competing new convention center somewhere else — we should be able to entice our existing hotel owners to expand. Existing hotel owners will not invest in new rooms so long as we keep talking about building a new center that may not be near their hotels.
We can then use limited public dollars to make necessary improvements to the Cook Convention Center. This is not an insignificant investment, but what is the alternative? If we abandon our existing assets or allow them to become obsolete, we have not only wasted the millions of dollars already invested, but we create new blight that will only spread. In the meantime, we would lose the many, badly needed service jobs related to hosting conferences in Memphis.
We should look at retooling the now vacant Peabody Place Mall into a high-tech, boutique conference center that would complement the Cook Convention Center’s larger exhibit space. Located within the downtown core and close to Beale, South Main, the Orpheum, AutoZone Park, FedEx Forum, many restaurants, existing hotels and businesses, a Peabody Place conference center would expose attendees to more of what makes Memphis unique. It would appeal to a new generation of conference attendees, who would rather feel integrated with the urban landscape than segregated from it inside a large, sterile building.
Linked by the trolley, the two facilities — Cook and Peabody Place — would work well in tandem, each meeting different needs but together leveraging the best of Memphis: our river, people, history, food and entertainment districts. By getting attendees outside the walls of a convention center we expose them to what is uniquely Memphis. My feeling is they will fall in love with the city, and we’ll keep them coming back year after year.
Daniel Burnham, Chicago’s renowned architect and city planner, famously said, “Make no little plans.” I agree completely with his sentiment. What must change, however, is our understanding of what makes for a grand plan. We must focus precious, scant capital and political attention on projects that will hold value, make better use of existing assets, and point our economy in the right direction.
The allure of starting fresh and building from scratch looms large, but to pursue that neglects the infrastructure we already have in place and risks crushing everything under mountains of public debt. Let’s grab the positive momentum we have now and leverage it to make the improvements we need to retain and attract sustainable small and medium-sized conferences to the real Memphis, not just to a building that will be obsolete by the time it opens. Based on conversations with those in leadership, this concept is already gaining traction as the leading vision for the city.