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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008 05:39 pm

The convention center’s bold new plans

Entertainment paves the way for expansion

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The Prairie Capital Convention Center is the sleeping giant of downtown Springfield. Now 30 years old and showing signs of wear, the big gray box is about to wake up and make itself known in a couple ways. A big "entertainment initiative" has the convention center itself bringing lots of shows and concerts to Springfield. And a feasibility study, prepared by a consultant, will be out in a month with projected costs for a major expansion to house more and bigger conventions. If all this goes well, Springfield will not only be better entertained, but it will be better fed, considering all the dollars conventioneers bring to the local economy.

The driving force behind this dual push into the future is Brian Oaks, who became the center's full-fledged general manager in June, after having served six months as interim. The "entertainment initiative" means the center is "buying" its own shows, taking on all the risks and rewards. The last time this was tried was in the early 1980s, when a few big money-losers scared the center board away from that line of work. They decided to rent the place, without risk, to show promoters. "For 20 years we just waited for the phone to ring," Oaks says. It rang less and less.

In its new, aggressive life, the center has already had successful shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd in April, Poison in August, and, coming Sept. 4, Jordin Sparks and Jesse McCartney. Montgomery Gentry is booked for Oct. 24, and Flyleaf on Nov. 7. "We want the center to be more a part of the community," Oaks says. People who live here may benefit from conventions, but they don't know it. Entertainment is a more tangible benefit.

And it just may help build support for what comes next: a push for a major expansion of the aging facility, which has had no significant upgrades since it opened in 1979. Oaks traced the center's history to the 1930s, when the idea of a convention center was first proposed. It promptly died because of opposition from the three downtown hotels -— the Leland, the Abraham Lincoln, and the St. Nicholas. They thought they already were convention centers, all that Springfield needed.

Talk revived in 1963, and the Springfield Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority was formed in 1965. Early ideas were to build at the fairgrounds, or just use the Armory. But in 1973 a $10 million bond issue was adopted, after having been voted down twice, which still rankles some. After four years of troubled construction, the building opened Oct. 31, 1979.

At first the Springfield convention center had no real competition, but now Bloomington and Peoria have new, bigger facilities. Oaks noted sadly that the Illinois Health Care Association, which convened here for years, has now taken its convention business to Peoria, which offers 108,000 square feet, compared to Springfield's 44,000 convention site.

One idea is to add another main hall of 40,000 to 60,000 square feet just east of the current facility, along with a ballroom and meeting rooms, while upgrading, but not expanding, the current 8,000-seat arena. Technology and audio-visual improvements, along with plumbing, heating, and fire safety upgrades, would be part of the proposal. The expansion would allow more and bigger conventions, which would help hotels, restaurants, and retail shops, creating jobs in the process.

How to pay for an expanded facility? Oaks says the convention center currently has limited taxing authority, which brings in about $1.1 million a year in revenues. That wouldn't be enough to fund the new additions. To raise the necessary money, it would need to partner with the city or the county, or become part of city government.

It won't be easy to build support for such a bold initiative. Making the case that investing in conventions and meetings will pay off in economic returns to the city as a whole is a tough task. But Oaks and his staff seem ready for the challenge. And launching a major "entertainment initiative," to put Springfield taxpayers in a good mood, seems just the place to start.

Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.

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