By John Kanelis
Amarillo's marketing campaign to generate more traffic and interest in its downtown district has been launched, according to Dan Quandt, vice president of the city's Convention and Visitors Council.
It took off almost the moment ground was broken on the new Embassy Suites downtown convention hotel, he said.
"Almost the very moment we broke ground," Quandt said, "the Gideons International group announced plans for a major convention here." The Gideons – an organization that distributes Bibles – is planning to conduct a state convention in Amarillo in 2017, bringing an estimated 500 visitors to the city.
"They said 'Go!'" Quandt said. "Our marketing strategy has started."
Quandt said it's just the beginning.
The Convention and Visitors Council, an arm of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, operates with a $2.7 million budget for the current fiscal year, Quandt said. Quandt, who's been with the CVC for three years, said his agency is funded exclusively by the hotel occupancy tax the city collects.
It's the "HOT tax" that the CVC hopes will increase manyfold if the city's downtown marketing strategy succeeds in bringing more activity to Amarillo.
The Embassy Suites hotel is getting most of the city's marketing attention at the moment, Quandt said. "We've had strategy meetings with Embassy Suites folks and with Newcastle," he said of the parent company and the Dallas-based development firm that's building the Amarillo hotel complex.
"Amarillo wasn't in the market for conventions" because of a lack of downtown hotel space near the convention meeting space at the Amarillo Civic Center, Quandt said. That's changing with the development of the Embassy Suite, he said. "Before, the closest hotel with enough meeting room space was 4 miles away," Quandt said in referring to the Wyndham Hotel on Interstate 40, just west of Georgia Street. "The new hotel will have more meeting space than any hotel in Amarillo," he said.
Quandt said, "We are not knocking others out. If a convention wants to meet somewhere else, we don't care – as long as they're meeting in Amarillo."
The city is employing many marketing inducements to lure conventions here. One of them, Quandt said, is its location. "People seem to think we're isolated, that we're way up here in the middle of nowhere," Quandt said. He added that the city is "smack dab in the middle, between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, and between Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver. We actually are in a great location."
He said the Embassy Suites presents "no threat to the tourist hotels along Interstate 40." Quandt said the city contains 5,300 hotel rooms within a half-mile of I-40 that are filled with "tourists or transients, people stopping here on their way to somewhere else."
He said that "everyone will benefit. The Embassy Suites is important because it changes the convention market for us."
The other major component is the multipurpose event venue, or MPEV, that's planned for construction downtown on the site of the former Coca-Cola Distribution Center that's been relocated to the Center Point Business Park.
"The biggest obstacle there is that we don't yet have a plan" for the MPEV's design, he said. "We have a concept."
But the MPEV, he said, already has generated some buzz among minor-league baseball franchise officials who've spoken informally already with Downtown Amarillo Inc. executive director Melissa Dailey about the possibility of playing baseball at the MPEV.
Quandt said the MPEV can play host to a lengthy list of potential activities. "You have baseball and you have the Quiddich Association," Quandt said with a chuckle, noting that "I just like saying 'quiddich.'" He called it a game derived from the Harry Potter films. "I don't even know what it is," he said.
The MPEV, which is slated to contain 4,500 permanent seats and is expected to cost about $32 million to build, could be a place for a wide variety of activities, Quandt said. Critics of the MPEV have focused on two aspects of the venue: its seating capacity, which they contend is too limited and its cost, which they say could escalate beyond the price tag that voters approved in the Nov. 3 citywide referendum.
The activities discussed for the MPEV include youth championship baseball, art sales, flea markets, soccer, rugby, religious services, car shows, truck rallies, movie nights, boxing/MMA matches, concerts, comedy acts and charity runs.
"And also baseball," he said.
Quandt said he remains optimistic that the Local Government Corp., which is tasked with implementing City Council policy on downtown development, will move quickly to ensure that the MPEV gets built.
The LGC has been advised by the city's legal staff and by interim City Manager Terry Childers that "you have to get serious. Time is running out." He believes the LGC is committed to ensuring that the MPEV gets done on time.
There's a third component to mustering more business for downtown, Quandt said, explaining that the Civic Center will need serious expansion and improvement.
Another point of contention for those who oppose the MPEV is their view that the city needs to expand the Civic Center first. No worries, said Quandt. The city will get take care of the structure built in 1968.
"Look at it this way. We're an agricultural hub. Amarillo was built by agriculture," he said. Quandt added that the city should be able to conduct a farm and ranch show that is befitting for a city that owes so much to agriculture.
The current farm and ranch show that occurs in Amarillo "is fine," said Quandt, "but it could be so much bigger."
He said the city has developed a "concept to add 75,000 square feet of convention space" to the Civic Center. The Cal Farley Coliseum also will need significant improvements, he said, but the city will need to make sure that it improves the coliseum and expands convention space in a manner that doesn't result in the Civic Center being closed for business.
Not only does the city need to bolster its farm and ranch exhibit capabilities, but also should be able to showcase its wind energy involvement. "We're building these wind energy plants here," he said, "and we need to be able to promote that."
Quandt said that with the LGC working on a firm timetable, the city aims to move forward in relatively short order.
"We hope to have the MPEV open by the start of baseball season in March or April of 2018 and the Embassy Suites open by the fall of 2017," he said.
"It's all coming together."
By John Kanelis