If Charlie McIlvain of the Kerrville Convention & Visitors Bureau had his way, and money were no object, Kerrville would be planning construction of a new convention center near downtown with at least 250 hotel rooms attached.
He thinks it’s possible and needed and shouldn’t be postponed any longer.
Otherwise residents and the “powers that be” will still be saying 20 years from now, “We could have built a convention center there years ago, but …”
“Since I came here, and actually when I interviewed for this job, I heard comments that our downtown and the Guadalupe River are under-utilized. And if we had a convention center downtown, that would revitalize Kerrville’s downtown,” McIlvain said. “There could be more opportunities to use the river, and people could walk into downtown for restaurants and shopping and entertainment.”
He admitted there are challenges to be overcome.
“People say there’s a parking challenge, but we have 1,200 spaces near the star on Water Street, with the free parking garage.”
“They say we already have traffic issues. But at a conference, the timeline for those people runs differently, but possibly with one or two free evenings. People will get out and walk and patronize restaurants and other sites.”
McIlvain said in his experience, which includes managing a convention center in Granbury, on the Brazos River, if a convention center is outside the downtown area, people won’t get in their cars and drive to downtown entertainment and shopping.
“And if they choose to do that from a larger hotel here, it’s as easy to drive to Fredericksburg as downtown Kerrville,” he said.
So here’s McIlvain’s “wishful thinking.”
“We need to plan one large enough to book a city-wide conference, with a 250-room hotel, and a 50,000- to 65,000-square-foot event facility,” McIlvain said. “If we don’t do something soon, we will lose opportunities to other areas. Already the Former Texas Rangers Foundation moved to Fredericksburg; and the Nimitz Museum is downtown there.
“Boerne recently announced they will be building a 17,000-20,000 square foot facility; and Fredericksburg could be looking at one 20,000-30,000 square feet. But if we build one that size in Kerrville, we will just be moving convention business from one hotel to another. The Inn of the Hills has about 22,000 square feet; and the YO Hotel about 11,000 square feet.”
He said we have to look at San Antonio and Austin to see what their convention centers have done for their cities.
“This could be done here with public-private partnerships, and once built 40 percent of the sales tax would be generated by visitors. Residents would have a lesser burden.”
“We’re not looking at a multi-million square-foot convention center here,” McIlvain said.
He said the key is to design the building to be as flexible as possible.
“The difference between a convention center and a conference center is usually that the convention center has a central huge exhibit area with rooms off to the sides; and the conference center is ‘divide-able’ into smaller and larger spaces that can be used multiple ways,” he said.
The key is to keep people and their meetings moving between rooms that can be for workshops or training at some parts of a conference, and “re-set” for luncheons or banquets during other times.
“And the staff would work different hours depending on what was scheduled, say 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. if a dinner space had to be re-set for another use the next morning.”
Site is a challenge
Another “variable” to overcome is finding space downtown where McIlvain recommends it be located.
“I’d like to see this next door and east of One Schreiner Center on the river-side of Water Street, toward the group of medical offices,” he said. “And before the old Schreiner Bank / Bank of America was bought by somebody else, we could have used that site to build up and connect the hotel to things downtown including the River Trail.”
He said they have to remember the distance to the parking garage.
McIlvain said people have pointed out the availability of the expanded facilities at the Hill Country Youth Event Center.
“We’re glad for the new space, and we’re seeing dividends from that event space already,” he said.
But McIlvain and his staff see two basically different types of groups who seek conference facilities, and some (such as the National Association of Auto Dealers) probably wouldn’t be willing to stay in Kerrville’s hotels and be bussed out to the HCYEC for conference events.
Some are looking for “larger” or “more upscale.”
“A new hotel would need to include a lounge and a restaurant and be ‘full-service’,” McIlvain said.
It also must have a kitchen and plenty of “back of the house” storage for sufficient tables of different sizes and shapes, chairs, podiums, sections of “flexible” portable stages and portable dance floors, and audio-visual systems built in for any future uses of space.
“Flexibility is the key to making this work,” he said.
McIlvain said he and his staff can document over the past 18 months the widely varied companies and organizations they’ve talked to at “sales opportunities,” a list of 72 groups and their required “peak room nights,” the city and state they last held an event, and required meeting square footage.
All needed 50,000 square feet minimum and some up to 75,000-100,000.
About a third needed less than 200 room nights, but the meeting space here is too small and Kerrville lost their business.
Parking, job opportunities
He said he’s had people say to him, the free parking garage in downtown Kerrville is a long way to walk, and complain any parking place is too far if it isn’t in front of the door of the store they want to go to.
He said if those same people get any reasonable parking place at Walmart, they’re walking farther to that front door than the downtown parking garage is from stores there.
And if they go to San Antonio or Austin, they can expect to park in a parking garage or lot and walk a considerable distance to their destination, he said.
Overall the challenges remain – funding, sites, and transportation, perhaps a trolley system.
McIlvain said a conference facility would create new jobs. “We already have one in 20 working people in Kerrville employed in the hospitality industry,” he added.
He and his staff are already promoting the almost-complete Athletic Complex on Holdsworth Drive. They are using a new advertisement to promote the complex and Kerrville in general.
“We’re competing with larger communities for the same tourist dollars. But our new ball fields are larger than Boerne’s and the fields are designed to be flexible.”
Asked about any possible hotel near the ball fields, McIlvain said there’s possible property near the Harper Road/IH-10 intersection for a hotel that could serve the complex.
He sees it as a good place for a connected water park, too, and a good product mix if the hotel includes an excellent restaurant.
But that location wouldn’t be good for a conference center, in his opinion. The family groups with youngsters wouldn’t mix well (different activities and noise levels) with mostly adult conference attendees.
Article by Bonnie Arnold
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