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Now that We've Built it, Will They Come?
Focus Turns Toward Bringing Events to New Las Cruces Convention Center

By Steve Ramirez, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 29, 2010--LAS CRUCES -- There is an old saying in the convention and tourism industry that timing and location are everything.

David Hicks, general manager of the Las Cruces Convention Center, and city officials believe that the timing and location of the new $26 million, 55,000-square-foot facility is right on the mark. Despite concerns throughout the industry that the convention market is drying up and tourism has sharply declined because of the recession, Hicks said valuable lessons have been learned from communities -- like Albuquerque -- that have experienced noteworthy declines in conventions and special events.

"Any facility out there will tell you that they lose business because they're not big enough; it happens everywhere," Hicks said. "But what we're doing is taking a look at what we can do within the walls of this place; what can we push and what can we go after."

The philosophy of bigger is better doesn't apply to the Las Cruces Convention Center. For a number of reasons, Las Cruces probably isn't going to get that big national convention. The size of the new convention center, the lack of an adjoining hotel that could reserve hundreds of rooms for conventioneers, debate whether Las Cruces is or isn't a "destination" city, and the lack of commercial airline service to and from the city are among some of the factors that businesses, organizations and groups use in deciding where they'll meet.

Hicks said it's about working with what you

do have and relying on the city's pluses to bring conventions and events to the city.

"It's very important to understand that from a sales standpoint," Hicks said. "We're looking for the niche groups. It might sound a little offbeat, but our challenge is to go out and find the strangest groups possible."

That means that while the American Medical Association probably isn't going to come to Las Cruces, it does mean that a particular group of doctors or medical specialists might. Interesting, the "in" to getting that group to come here could very likely come from someone who either lives here or is familiar with the city.

"We're interested in those residents who might have some kind of affiliation with a group that could come here," Hicks said. "Often, conventions are booked because there's someone in a group or organization who wants to show off their town to others."

Apparently, that approach is proving to be at least moderately successful. City Manager Terrence Moore said there are 27 events that have been confirmed and booked at the convention center, 680 E. University Ave. Even though the convention center is still more than three months away from a "soft" or quiet opening, and four months away from its official grand opening, Hicks and city officials are pleased with interest in the convention center.

"Of course it's important that the convention center be as successful as it possibly can be," said Assistant City Manager Robert Garza. "We're fortunate that we have a good company, in Global Spectrum, running the convention center, and we've got a good sized facility. Other convention centers have expanded and gotten too big and they've ended up draining money in some communities because the buildings are empty and there's the continued costs of maintaining them."

In Albuquerque, city officials and business leaders are debating the merits of building a major events center and a destination hotel. Tax increases to help offset the costs of construction have been mentioned, and that has started the dialogue about going forward with the proposed project.

Plans for a hotel next to the Las Cruces Convention Center still remain, but until the economy improves the hotel won't become a reality.

Las Cruces resident Al Marrufo, who is retired from White Sands Missile Range, said he supports the approach city officials and Global Spectrum are taking.

"Why do we need the Taj Mahal right away," Marrufo said. "Keep it simple, prove to everyone that it's going to work and isn't going to be a drain on taxes and other public money, and then add if you want to. But by the same token, we've needed a convention center here for a long time. If we're going to do it, then let's do it right."

Hicks agreed.

"Absolutely," he said. "It's so important to keep in mind what you have in the way of infrastructure, like the number of hotel room and amenities you have."

Bookings for years to come

Just as encouraging is the amount of business the convention center could bring in. While there are 27 events already confirmed, there's more than double that in meetings, banquets, consumer shows, special events and conventions that could also be coming to Las Cruces.

According to a list compiled by Hicks and his staff, and provided to Moore, the potential is there for another 56 bookings that could raise another $444,250 in business at the convention center, from December through December 2013.

"I'm pretty optimistic about that tentative business becoming reality," Hicks said. "A number of those events are businesses, organizations and groups who contacted us before we knew when the convention center was going to open. They asked if we could pencil them in, with the hopes that the building might be open in December."

Planning for the future

Hicks anticipates being able to move into the convention center in late October, with several weeks needed after that to train employees and ensure that furnishings and fixtures have been properly installed and equipment -- particularly kitchen equipment -- has been tested and works as it should.

Last week, city council approved refinancing on a $26 million New Mexico Finance Authority loan that has been used to build the convention center. While it will take the city longer to pay off the loan, from its original 20-year term to 27 years, the repayment will actually end up saving city taxpayers more than $1 million.

"That's important from the standpoint that while there is always a substantial investment in building a facility such as ours, we can also start thinking now about what it's going to take financially to maintain the convention center into the future," Hicks said. "Of course, it's going to be vital that some kind of fund can be established where money generated from the convention center can be applied for future costs of maintaining and operating the center. We'll be preparing proposals like that and presenting them to the council sometime in the coming months."

Steve Ramirez can be reached at (575) 541-5452

Meet in Las Cruces

-- City officials anticipate that construction of the Las Cruces Convention Center could be finished in late October.

-- The center is located at the corner of University Avenue and Union Avenue.

-- The installation of furniture, fixtures and equipment inside the 55,000-square-foot building would likely continue until December.

-- A "soft" opening of the building is anticipated in December.

-- Formal grand opening ceremonies are scheduled Jan. 13-15.

-- The first scheduled event is on Jan. 17.

-- According to the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau and Global Spectrum, the company hired to manage the convention center, 27 events have already been booked at the Las Cruces Convention Center through July 31, 2014, with total projected revenue of $272,710.

-- Currently, there are at least 56 tentative bookings through Dec. 31, 2013 with revenues projected at $444,250.

Grand opening gala

-- Three days of events to mark the opening of Las Cruces' first-ever true convention center, 680 E. University Ave., are planned.

-- A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for Jan. 13

-- A formal invitation and black-tie dinner gala will be on Jan. 14

-- A public open house will be Jan. 15

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To see more of the Las Cruces Sun-News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.lcsun-news.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.

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