Upscale conference space at Civic Center?
City staff members are proposing putting an upscale conference room in the Oak Ridge Civic Center.
Some Oak Ridge City Council members at their last work session voiced concerns regarding how this might conflict with how people currently use the Civic Center and its parking.
Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson and Ray Evans, economic development consultant, talked about the proposal and showed artist renderings of possible renovations. Evans credited Watson with proposing that the city look at the Civic Center as a conference center location.
“We’ve reached the stage to decide, proceed or not to proceed,” Watson said in response to a question from Mayor Warren Gooch.
Evans said the city had been looking for a site for a conference center since a study in 2012 stated it was feasible and financially viable due to the demand that existed for a conference center in the city. Evans has said on this and previous occasions that this proposed conference center would attract conferences Oak Ridge hasn’t been able to attract in the past.
Evans said at first the city had wanted to lease space next to the new American Museum of Science and Energy location in the Main Street Oak Ridge development, but the property owner for that site wouldn’t agree with the city’s conditions.
“In hindsight, frankly, we were about to spend several million dollars on someone else’s property. And then in turn, pay them a monthly grant for the next 15 years as opposed to investing in our own property and not paying ourselves that same monthly rent (during) that period of time,” Evans said.
“There are some different things that can make this a real jewel and get it spiffed up,” Watson said of the Civic Center.
Evans said the project, if approved by City Council, is scheduled for completion in November 2023. He did not indicate a start time for work.
Evans in his presentation stated that Clark Nexsen architectural and engineering company estimated the project would cost $4,367,919. However, he explained this estimate assumes many different costs and contingencies.
In his presentation, Evans said the cost of building materials had gone up since the city was first contemplating the project and is “unpredictable,” which the estimate took into account. He also said the estimates for air conditioning, heating, ventilation and electrical were based on the assumption that the city would have to completely start over again with installing them. However, he suspected that would not be the case.
The cost also included a sprinkler system, which Evans said is necessary for the number of people who would be using the building. The projected cost also includes furniture and fixtures.
The state of Tennessee already gave the city about $3 million for a conference center, but that’s not tied to it being at the Civic Center, a memo from Watson stated. He said the city would still have to use some of its own general fund money.
Watson and Evans also said $500,000 that the city had already set aside for roof replacement at the entire Civic Center will help to fund the project, with Evans saying that the new section’s roof would be $293,250 specifically.
What would be added
Watson said the new design would include Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible restrooms, which the city has needed to add to the Civic Center.
Evans said Clark Nexsen’s designs aim for the conference center to seat at least 400 people “comfortably,” and includes a stage. The plan includes demolishing the interior of the Civic Center wing that hosts the club and meeting rooms, while keeping some of its walls, but adding a new entrance. The building would be taller and also expand by 28 feet toward the culvert in A.K. Bissell Park.
A pre-function space would lead to a 5,200-square-foot area that could be divided into three separate rooms with dividing walls, or it could function as a single room as well.
Watson said the facility would be the largest meeting area in Oak Ridge and be available for rent.
Watson explained the pool and gym would still be available to citizens as they are now.
“I like the idea of having one,” Mayor Pro Tem Rick Chinn said regarding a convention center in Oak Ridge.
“ETEC (East Tennessee Economic Council) had their annual meeting at the Knoxville Airport this year. (That) just really got under my skin,” he said.
However, Chinn added he had “a lot of questions” connected to the conference center being added to the Civic Center. City Council member Chuck Hope expressed similar thoughts.
“We’re talking dollars and cents, and I don’t know that we’ve talked about everything we need to talk about before dollars and cents,” Hope said.
He pointed out that non-profit organizations use the Civic Center, especially before the COVID-19 pandemic, as a place to meet. He asked if the new space would work for these small group meetings.
“It’s a valuable asset that we’ve always provided to our citizens,” he said pointing out that anyone can come in during operating hours and use the meeting rooms as they are now. “Are we going away from that? And if we are, how do we address that as a community?”
Chinn expressed similar thoughts, specifically related to a previously free space becoming a rental space.
“We’ve got a lot of great organizations in town. They’ve got a lot of great causes, and they don’t have a lot of money,” he said. Chinn added that organizations will want the city to still donate the space for events and that City Council will need a policy in place on when they can do that.
Evans said he’d heard from city Recreation and Parks Director Jon Hetrick, who said that with the removable walls in place and the conference center divided into rooms, the city will still be able to do events like it’s Children’s Halloween Party and others that require small rooms. He said Hetrick is also looking at other places in the building to hold activities outside the wing that would become the conference area.
City Council member Ellen Smith asked that small rooms be incorporated into the design.
Hope also asked if there would be any upgrades to sidewalks and if the existing parking lot would work for conventions, alongside the Oak Ridge Senior Center, park and other area amenities.
Evans said the city could get more parking by rearranging the existing library parking lot. He pointed out that Jackson Square’s parking lot added four new parking spaces in spite of also adding a fountain. However, Hope said there still might be issues, especially with the idea of accommodating the 400 people this conference center is expected to hold.
“The need for places for young people to just sort of ‘be’ is very real and needs to be accommodated at some level,” Smith said, pointing out that young people hang out at the Civic Center. “They’ll be there, and we need to expect that.”
She recommended the Youth Advisory Board, an appointed board of Oak Ridge youth, look at these plans. Similarly, Council member Derrick Hammond talked of the conference center leading to two very different crowds in the same building — youth and conference attendees.
Chinn said he wanted to make sure the city isn’t “giving away” the kinds of rooms that people pay to use at Oak Ridge Associated Universities, hotels and restaurants. He pointed out the city doesn’t need to compete with these entities.
Evans said it might actually help two businesses that offer meeting space — Calhoun’s restaurant and DoubleTree by Hilton — because both might cater events held at a conference center in the Civic Center.
Chinn also said he wanted to know how much it would continue to cost to run the conference room after it is built.
Watson pointed out that these costs might be easier than having to pay rent to someone else, which the city would have been doing at the earlier proposed location between AMSE and JCPenney.