Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Indiana Convention Center

Cuts keep Convention Center expansion on budget

June 18, 2007

As state and city officials sit down with architects to hammer out final plans for the Indiana Convention Center expansion, they're cutting some bells and whistles to make sure the project comes in at its $275 million price tag.

At the table: leaders from the Indiana Stadium and Convention Building Authority, which will oversee construction; the local Capital Improvement Board, which will manage the facility; the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, which books events there; and Ratio Architects Inc.

The sheer number of participants--and their potentially conflicting interests--could make for tension at the drawing board. But CIB President Fred Glass said the money-conscious state representatives have been inclusive in the "budget reconciliation" process.

"We've agreed to a number of substantial cuts as part of that process, but nothing we consider critical has been cut, at least to this point," he said.

From convention center managers' point of view, essentials are the 253,000 square feet of additional exhibit space, 35 more meeting rooms totaling 63,000 square feet, and a connector between the expansion and Lucas Oil Stadium.

Glass also said CIB is pleased with details that have been determined so far, such as the quality of the interior finishes, pillar spacing and floor weight loads.

The compromises have come in the "back of the house" amenities such as loading docks and storage space, he said.

State officials "have been very collaborative with us, but ultimately the [building] authority sets the budget," he said.

And its commitment, Executive Director John P. Klipsch said, is to stick to the budget laid out when the expansion was approved in 2005 as part of a $900 million convention center/stadium construction project.

"We're confident we're going to be able to build the project for $275 million," he said.

That's not the case for Lucas Oil Stadium, though. The stadium is being built to replace the RCA Dome, which will be torn down to make way for the convention center expansion. But a $48 million lease-termination fee paid to the Indianapolis Colts ate up a chunk of the original $90 million contingency fund in addition to the stadium's $625 million budget.

Higher-than-expected costs for steel, insurance and soil decontamination left the reserve fund with $16 million as of mid-June--more than a year before the project is scheduled to be completed.

"The picture is not looking too good to be able to build [the stadium] for the original budget," Klipsch said, and city and state officials are trying to figure out where to get additional funding.

There's some good budget news, though--tax increases set up to fund a portion of the costs are coming in $3.1 million above projections through mid-June. Still, that's likely not going to be enough to bridge the gap.

One solution that's off the table, Klipsch said, is stealing from the convention center budget to pay for the stadium. And, he said, the expansion budget should be a bit easier to control because, while the stadium is on a fast track--designs were still being finalized even after construction began--the convention center isn't.

"We'll be able to start from the very beginning and manage the design to fit the budget," he said.

At least one "budget-management" change has taken place already. Original plans called for adding a ballroom to the existing 66,761 square feet in the center. Instead, the planned JW Marriott convention hotel will include a 45,000-square-foot grand ballroom and 20,000-square-foot junior ballroom.

Industry watchers say officials will be treading a fine line when squeezing the budget.

Indianapolis ranks 32nd in the nation in square footage available at its convention center, according to Los-Angeles-based trade publication Tradeshow Week. With the extra space, it will jump to 10th if no other expansions come online in the interim.

But what makes those square feet more expensive to build are the very selling points meeting planners want, experts say.

Planners want lots of loading docks and easy accessibility to space to keep down labor costs, said Lorena Fuentes, senior manager of meetings and events for Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association, a trade group with over 5,500 members. And it's important to have as few columns as possible, and floors need great weight-bearing potential, she said.

"A pillarless exhibit hall is a big selling point because exhibits look much better," she said.

Floor loads also can be important when trying to woo back events that include a lot of heavy equipment such as the Performance Racing Industry's annual trade show, said Tradeshow Week Editor-in-Chief Michael Hart. PRI is among the large events traditionally held in Indianapolis that have moved until the convention center expansion is completed.

"If [leaders] are looking to compromise on floor loads, that would be a bad thing," he said.

Free wireless Internet access also is becoming a norm, Hart said. Now, the Indiana Convention Center has hot zones--not complete coverage--and visitors have to pay to log on.

But observers will have to stay tuned to see if the local expansion makes the grade. Leaders said the final plans should be unveiled later this summer.

"There's always a buzz about those convention centers that are looking to expand," said PCMA's Fuentes. "This could really take [the Indiana Convention Center] and put it up another level to compete with Chicago and St. Louis."

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