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Convention Center director talks up facility's potential

by I.C. Murrell | April 29, 2021 at 2:54 a.m.
The Pine Bluff Convention Center is shown in this undated photo.

Drawing events to the Pine Bluff Convention Center is no easy task these days, but three events coming to the facility this summer speak to the relevance of the 45-year-old venue.

"It's a challenge," said Joseph McCorvey, executive director of the Civic Auditorium Complex Commission, which operates the Convention Center. "When we get a hotel, we can solicit more events to the Convention Center. People have local ties to the complex."

That proved to be the case as McCorvey shared with the commission Tuesday that the Southeast Arkansas Education Service Cooperative, based in Monticello, would host a three-day meeting at the complex. About 800 attendees are expected to use the entire center, which includes an arena, ballrooms and auditorium.

On June 19, about 200 attendees are scheduled to gather in the arena for a Corvette Club regional meeting. That would be followed by a Rollin' Lions gathering Aug. 27-29.

Upgrading wireless technology for educators and addressing electrical needs to support up to 51 recreational vehicles were among the insurance renovations totaling $25,597, according to a commission financial overview. That factored into the actual year-to-date expense for March, which was $22,482 more than the budgeted expense of $288,840.

The actual revenue for March, which was $291,165, barely exceeded the budgeted expense but was short of the budgeted revenue of $316,350. That left an actual net of minus-$20,157, with the insurance renovations a big factor.

Special events numbers were not included in the actual revenue and expense figures.

At issue is whether the city of Pine Bluff will support upgrades of a Convention Center and adjoining Plaza Hotel totaling anywhere from $18 million to $28 million, depending on whether the hotel is demolished (the less expensive option) and rebuilt or renovated. The hotel, first opened in 1988 as Wilson World, is now inactive.

Officials with the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission earlier this week aired concerns as to whether facility improvements at the city's expense would lead to positive financial return for the city. McCorvey estimated about $4 million is needed to make necessary upgrades to the Convention Center, which seats 7,600 in its arena.

"Just imagine if we had a hotel," McCorvey said. "We could get more events here."

McCorvey said he lost two bids for college basketball tournaments this year because the Convention Center does not have a functioning hotel adjoined. The Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament was played in Birmingham, Ala., and the Great American Conference held each game at the site of the higher-seeded team.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff competes in the SWAC. The University of Arkansas at Monticello won the GAC men's tournament on its home floor.

A&P provided $1,031,046 to the Convention Center in 2020. That support, coupled with $109,705 in facility revenue, resulted in an amount of $7,019 after expenses for the facility, according to a pie chart A&P Director Sheri Storie provided.

"Yes, we should be helping the Convention Center, but should we be footing the bill and ignoring all other tourism development in the city?" Storie asked rhetorically.

Storie suggested heritage tourism -- which she says is the fastest growing type of tourism in the U.S. -- would be more profitable for Pine Bluff.

"We have so much to offer in Pine Bluff," Storie said. "You know the story of Pine Bluff? You would be amazed. Especially after covid, people are looking to travel. Parents, grandparents and children are looking for educational experiences, authentic experiences. We have that in Pine Bluff. It needs to be developed. But when we have our total revenue going to the Convention Center, we don't have those dollars to develop tourism to bring people to Pine Bluff."

Civic Auditorium Complex Commission members Tuesday approved a financial audit, which detailed $1,740,328 in total assets (including $744,537 cash) for the commission and a $604,993 excess in revenue over expenses for 2020. The A&P support was counted among revenues to the commission.

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