ASHLAND Last weekend, Ashland Mayor Matthew B. Perkins titillated folks around the area when he released a concept drawing of the convention center slated for downtown.
The drawing was created to show the Woodlands Foundation — an organization created for economic development in Ashland and Boyd after Ashland Oil left the area — the plans the city had for the G.B. Johnson Building.
The Woodlands ultimately agreed to award a grant of $750,000 to the city to put towards the construction of the convention center, the second-largest in the foundation's history. IRS records show Woodlands has been putting money into downtown redevelopment — in the 2018 and 2019 tax years, the foundation awarded $167,000 to WB Hospitality during the makeover of the Ashland Plaza Hotel into the Delta-Marriott.
On the docket since 2017, when the city finalized the deal on the accepting the G.B. Johnson Building, the convention has seen delay after delay. First it was the getting a TIF district established, which was finalized in January 2020 to the tune of $6.8 million to be paid out over 10 years.
Then COVID hit, effectively shutting down any capital project outside of utilities until the city could get a better handle on the finances.
Now, with a $12.75 million bond in their pocket, the city is ready for the first phase of the project — tearing down the building — that's expected to cost more than $2 million, due to the cost of asbestos removal from the site.
Perkins said he believes the drawing will give the public a preview to “what could be.”
“I'm a visual kind of person, so to have it in a drawing makes it easier to envision,” he said. “I think this gives people an idea of what could happen here.”
Right now, the project is currently in the planning stages of the demolition — Community Economic Development Director Chris Pullem said since the G.B. Johnson Building is so close to the hotel, crews aren't “going to hitting it with a wrecking ball.”
“This will have to be floor-by-floor and surgical,” he said. “We think once this gets bid out, it will take three to five months for the demolition.”
Right now, City Attorney Jim Moore said the demolition job is about 60-90 days away from being ready for bid. Once to bid, that will take another month before the city has a contractor selected.
All told, from demolition to ribbon cutting, the entire project is expected to cost between $15 to $16.5 million, according to Pullem.
While much buzz has been circulating about the Camp Landing Entertainment District in the county — which itself will have a convention center — Perkins said the city's project is more “laser-focused.”
“They're doing great things out there and will be providing a lot of entertainment and recreation,” Perkins said. “They also have a lot of land to do it. We need a convention space — most cities have convention spaces for conferences so in order to be competitive with other cities across the state, like Pikeville, we need one as well.”
Commissioner Cheryl Spriggs said she knows first-hand — when she was a Rotary governor, she wanted to have a convention in Ashland. But with no space available to hold it, it had to be hosted in a different city.
Spriggs said bringing in conventions — even with the county's project in mind —
will be a “win-win for everybody.”
“I happen to think that competition is good, because I'm a capitalist,” Spriggs said. “They'll (the county) be getting a lot of conventions and conferences, and we'll get conventions and conferences, and people will go and come downtown to shop.”
The push for the convention center is part of the overall downtown strategy, according to Pullem. With the renovation of the hotel — which Pullem called a “black eye for the city” when it was under previous ownership — Pullem said he's already seeing a lot of resurgence in the area.
“That hotel has a 90% occupancy rate Sunday through Thursday,” Pullem said. “If we can have conventions, that will fill in that weekend gap. To put things in perspective, if you have more than 60% occupancy in the hotel industry, you're doing good.”
Commissioner Amanda Clark, who has long promoted downtown redevelopment, said the delays in the convention center have allowed for more groundwork to be laid in the area.
“We knew from the start the hotel was going to be a major anchor and this convention center would be a part of it,” she said. “I don't think if the convention center went up at the same time, it would have near the impact. There wasn't a Broadway Square then, there was no Visit Ashland promoting the area. I think we needed an attitude shift in order for this convention center to get the best buzz.”
In another regard, Commissioner Josh Blanton said he thinks national trends in conventions and conferences makes Ashland's timing impeccable.
“I think our timing is perfect. If you look at how conventions and conferences are shaping up in a future post-COVID world — obviously, with the Delta variant we're not there yet — they're downsizing and looking for smaller areas,” Blanton said. “That's good for us.”
While downtown shopping might pickup when the Shriners or the Kentucky State Bar Association is in town, Pullem said the convention is planned to boost the economy even outside of conferences. One way is providing parking for the public, a deficit for motorists in the city's heart. Another way Pullem said is through additional commercial space as well as allowing smaller scale events — such as a weekly meeting of a civics organization — to use the facility during the week.
Numbers crunched a few years back show $90 million is expected to be spent in the downtown more than 20 years due to the convention center — Pullem said he has faith in those numbers, despite the dip in the economy due to COVID.
And that's just direct spending — indirect and induced spending could add another $65 million to that total. About 123 jobs would be created within five years, according to the study.
Commissioner Marty Gute said some of the changes in downtown are already starting to bear fruit.
“Broadway Square has been a help — I see people having ice cream down there all the time. I'm looking forward to seeing some bistros pop up and shops come in once this convention center is opened,” Gute said.
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