|By Rene Romo, Albuquerque Journal,
N.M.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 20, 2008 - LAS CRUCES -- New Mexico State University has always been proud to display its agricultural heritage. In fact, campus visitors have been likely to see cattle grazing on NMSUowned pasture land on busy University Avenue.
But the university, along with the city and private investors, is embarking on a major makeover of its northern campus face that will replace grazing cattle with a new 185-room hotel, a city-financed convention center and a major new arts complex.
The projects will be clustered side by side along a four-block stretch of University Avenue, the thoroughfare that separates the campus from Las Cruces and across which students stream from off-campus apartments on the way to classes.
"The hotel, the convention center, the arts center -- I think you're going to see incredible growth in that area," said Ken Mompellier, executive director of the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The three projects are separate but interrelated, and they are starting to get under way in earnest.
A firm construction schedule has not been established for the projects, but the on-campus hotel could be built by late 2009 with the convention center built by late 2010, said Janet Green, head of NMSU's School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management.
University regents on Dec. 14 approved a 50-year lease of 3.8 acres of campus property to Austin-based Intercap Institutional Investors to develop a $30 million hotel. The property lies at the southeast corner of University and Union avenues.
The privately built hotel will be the second largest in the city. It will sit across Union Avenue from an 80,000-square-foot convention center, dubbed Las Cruces Center, that the city is building on eight acres of land leased from NMSU.
The school in March approved a 45-year lease of the land to the city at an annual rate of $3,500. The city last week began advertising for a management company to run the convention center.
To the east of the new campus hotel, on the corner of University Avenue and Espina Street, NMSU is planning to build a Center for the Arts. It's estimated to cost $80 million, with the money coming from a combination of public funds and private donations.
The center would eventually bring together the university's art, dance, theater and music departments, now scattered across campus in 13 buildings, into one complex, featuring several large performance spaces.
In a list of $549 million worth of capital outlay proposals released last week, Gov. Bill Richardson recommended $18.5 million for the first phase of the NMSU arts complex.
The university announced Monday that Holzman Moss Architecture of New York was selected to design the new arts complex, with ASA Architects of Las Cruces serving as the local liaison. A series of workshops to discuss the arts complex will begin Jan. 24 in the NMSU student union, Corbett Center.
The idea of a unified arts complex has been talked about for decades. City officials have explored building a convention center for about eight years. And the university, starting in 2003, began looking into building a resort hotel near its golf course on the campus' east side.
University architect Michael Rickenbaker said the projects began to come together as NMSU finished a master-planning process in 2006.
When Las Cruces planners zeroed in on an eight-acre site on the west end of the NMSU campus for the convention center, university officials turned their attention to a neighboring site for development of a hotel.
A 2005 feasibility study prepared for the city of Las Cruces found that meeting planners said the most important factor in choosing to book a Las Cruces convention center was the site's connection to a large hotel.
Mompellier, who has been deeply involved in the convention center project, said the facility could be successful without a major hotel nextdoor. "But it's a lot more difficult to sell without an anchor hotel in close proximity," he said.
The first phase of the arts center project calls for construction of a roughly 500-seat theater, a combination symphonic/opera hall with roughly 1,000 seats, a smaller black-box theater and gallery space.
The university's master plan, adopted late last year, calls for other long-term projects along University Avenue.
These projects include a new primary entrance to the campus at Jordan Street on the east end of University Avenue, along with new parking structures and commercial development nearby.
The hotel is not envisioned as a major moneymaker for NMSU, but rather a way to increase the university's exposure, burnish the credentials of the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management and generate educational opportunities for students, Woods said.
The Intercap lease starts at $50,000 per year, increases to $100,000 per year after the hotel opens, and then rises to $150,000 per year after the hotel occupancy rate hits a certain level.
The campus-based hotel will provide students from NMSU's School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management with opportunities for internships and employment, under an agreement between Intercap and the university.
Green, head of NMSU department, said the project will provide a "$30 million laboratory in which students can learn and train."
The convention center will bolster Las Cruces' attraction to visitors and help pump more tourism dollars into the local economy, said Assistant City Manager Robert Garza.
"From a financial perspective, it really made sense," Garza said. "Let's build a magnet that will draw people and put money in our coffers."
The convention center is envisioned as an 80,000-square-foot facility with a 25,000-squarefoot exhibit hall and roughly 40,000 square feet of meeting space.
The roughly $26 million convention center is being financed by the New Mexico Finance Authority and the debt will be paid off with annual revenue generated by a $2.50-per-night surcharge on local hotel room rentals. The surcharge is expected to generate about $1.5 million per year, Mompellier said.
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