Event venue

Consultants say Tuscaloosa can support new event location

After two years, a global pandemic, and hours upon hours of study, a consulting group now reports that Tuscaloosa could host — and benefit from — a new convention, sports, and event facility.

A venue of around 20,000 square feet could attract some of the events Tuscaloosa lost in 2020, according to Johnson Consulting of Chicago.

According to Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports estimates, these missed opportunities were equivalent to approximately 34,000 hotel rooms lost that year.

It would also help fill a void that now exists with current facilities — the Bryant Conference Center totals over 30,000 square feet, but its largest room is just over 10,000 square feet — and larger spaces that are already active and rooted in the convention and sports tourism markets.

“Adding a component that our market lacks could help reduce lost events,” said a summary of preliminary findings by Johnson Consulting. “The recommended space could support up to 30,000 room nights and should be able to accommodate trade shows, sporting events, meetings and entertainment events.”

Progress has been slow but thorough

Johnson Consulting was first hired by the Tuscaloosa City Council in January 2020 to lead research, data collection and market analysis efforts to determine if a new conference center or athletics venue would be feasible here.

The company considered the size of the Tuscaloosa market, whether Tuscaloosa needed another convention or athletics center, and if so, the size, scope and location of that facility.

Johnson Consulting’s $110,000 contract also gave the company the leeway to consider a large facility for conferences, events and sporting events, or smaller facilities dedicated to each function.

After being grounded by the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world just weeks after being held back by mayor, Johnson Consulting resumed its efforts in mid-2021. City officials said the company spent months visiting sites throughout the region and conducting surveys with members of the community, including local business owners, sports groups and the University of Alabama, among others. Throughout the process, Johnson Consulting also worked closely with Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, and the Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority.

In a report recently presented to the Cultural Arts and Tourism Subcommittee of the Elevate Tuscaloosa Advisory Council, the consultants said Tuscaloosa could benefit from a multi-purpose hall of approximately 20,000 square feet, or more, with lounging areas. potentials.

It would take at least two acres of land to build on, but ideally it would be on five acres to allow for future expansion. Additionally, the consultants said building it near the current cluster of downtown Tuscaloosa hotels would likely work better.

According to Johnson, a flexible and versatile 20,000 square foot facility would fill a gap in Tuscaloosa’s current market while giving the city the ability to host larger conferences, trade shows and potentially indoor sporting events.

A venue of this size would be incompatible with large-scale basketball or volleyball tournaments, but could be ideal for cheering, dancing, gymnastics and weightlifting events, according to the study.

The site could also be used to host what the consultants called “something unique,” like competitive video game tournaments, an industry that tends to do well in college markets, they said.

The challenge, according to the consultants, would be to gain a foothold in an already saturated sports venue market, such as the Finley Center in Hoover and the Crossplex in Birmingham.

“There are so many indoor sports venues in our driving time now that we may find it difficult to break into the market,” said the consultant’s summary. “However, if we are determined, we can certainly leverage our unique strengths and offerings to pursue new business.”

Long-term vision, but questions remain

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox has advocated for a new conference center since passing his Raising the Tuscaloosa plan in 2019.

Originally budgeted at $60 million, this “experience place” is intended to improve the experience economy while attracting thousands of tourists to Tuscaloosa each year.

This preliminary budget was reduced to $43 million after the announcement of the Saban Center, a new state-of-the-art interactive learning center that will offer science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. ), theater and outdoor recreation on the site of what is now The Tuscaloosa News.

Now, $17 million, once allocated to the location of the experiment, has been spent on land purchase, engineering and design of the Saban Center, and planning and construction of the River District Park, which is currently under construction and intended to be an outdoor component of the Saban Centre.

Findings from Johnson Consulting show that there is a market gap between room sizes of 12,000 square feet and 70,000 square feet, an area that a Tuscaloosa location could fill.

“We should focus on providing good meeting and ballroom space to fill the gap not served by existing facilities,” the report’s summary states. “Adding a component that our market lacks could help reduce lost events. The recommended space could support up to 30,000 room nights and should be able to accommodate trade shows, sporting events, meetings and entertainment events.

Additionally, the consultants suggested that upgrades to existing facilities, such as Bowers and Sokol Parks, could help support the type of event facilities they recommend.

“Rather than focusing on entering the highly competitive indoor facilities market, a better strategy is instead to focus on leveraging our existing assets,” the consultant’s summary said. “For example, if Sokol Park was properly planned and a business plan developed, we have a good opportunity to find a niche in the market. The same goes for the Phelps Center and Bowers Park.

But the exact cost of building, maintaining and operating this new event venue remains undetermined.

To provide some understanding of this, Johnson Consulting is due to return later this spring with a final recommendation which will include a site analysis, capital construction analysis, demand projections and operational cost estimate – which will be all considered when determining the final recommendation on size, events and location.

“These ideas aren’t set in stone yet, but I’m excited about the potential of this project for our community and look forward to hearing Johnson’s final recommendations,” Maddox said. “The city of Tuscaloosa is constantly growing and changing and I think the addition of a large event space could be extremely beneficial to our community.”

Contact Jason Morton at [email protected].