Ideas, idle gossip and occasionally important odds ’n’ ends… by Jack Wright
As three-hour epics go, it didn’t offer the drama of Gladiator, the chest-pounding fervor of Braveheart or the gut-wrenching emotion of Dances With Wolves. But last Thursday’s special meeting to discuss the new convention hall actually blew me away. The city council, an administration I have criticized a great deal in the past couple years (specifically the mayor and city manager), presented a show that was packed with excellent research, diligent financial homework and common sense by the gallon.
I wish that every resident of this city had seen it. If they had, I think a large majority of them would feel as I did after the show was over… the ONLY way to proceed is with the design that voters approved of, by a two-to-one majority in November of 2008. And I say this despite the fact that the price of the construction jumped from the original estimate of $10.5 million to at least $13.6 million (the lowest bid on the table right now).
The price jumped primarily because the state’s Department of Environment would not allow the city to build its planned convention hall on an enlarged footprint that swallowed up “virgin” beach. Instead, the DEP required them to move the building 24 foot toward Beach Avenue, requiring a rebuilding of the promenade – an extensive, expensive task.
I’m not going to dwell on the process that led us to this point. All I will say is that I think the city council put the cart before the horse by commissioning the architect, Kimmel-Bogrette, to design such a building without first getting an indication from the state as to whether or not they would even consider allowing the city to build on the beach. In so doing, I believe the city delayed this project since they had to go back to the architect after the DEP turned down their plan and ask for a new design, one that conformed to the state’s requirements.
But that’s done now. And the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is this – Cape May needs a convention hall as soon as possible.
Not everyone loves the new curved promenade that is planned for the front of the new building – but I do. Some say the planned building is too big for Cape May. I don’t agree.
I believe the center as planned would be a shot in the arm for the twice-annual Cape May Jazz Festival, which has suffered at the hands of the recession but which could attract even bigger names than it already does to such a fantastic new venue. Some people point to the fact that the old convention hall only sold out once in its 47-year lifespan. That may or not be true, but I can’t say I’m shocked. It had the charm, the facilities, and the acoustics of an oversized cow shed. Okay, maybe not THAT bad, but it was the kind of place where mediocre wedding bands would feel right at home.
It wasn’t a convention hall, unlike its 1917 predecessor, it was more of a community center and many happy memories were made there, to be sure. But it wasn’t a performance venue that could attract world-class performers. The new center would.
Imagine how the Cape May Music Festival would be served by such a venue.
Imagine how the Cape May Film Festival could spread its wings with such a venue.
Imagine how the new Cape May Forum (more, much more on that in an upcoming issue) could grow with such a venue.
Imagine how the antiques and arts and crafts fairs could benefit from such a venue.
Imagine the number of weddings and small conventions that would be attracted to such a venue, bringing in many hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local community, as well as into the city coffers, along with rent revenue from the three planned stores and restaurant (and what a pretty cool restaurant space it would be).
Now, what if you still really don’t want all of this for little Cape May? What if you really DO just want to see a hall on the same scale as the existing building? The trouble with that plan is that the architect would have to redraw the plans, which would then have to be approved again by the DEP (always a slow and tortuous process) and the council would then have to put the contract out to bid again – all of which would take the best part of a year, most likely.
And in the meantime all indicators point to an upward trend in the construction market, which means that the prices of materials, which are coming out of something like a 15-year low, will start to rise. That could add a considerable amount of money on to the price of a smaller hall.
The city flashed up a lot of figures at the meeting. I won’t bore you with them all. But suffice to say that the cost of a smaller convention hall is likely to be very close to the price of the glorious building the city wants to build.
City auditor Leon Costello told the most compelling story of the night. Because of a number of variables (a favorable bond rating for the city, a recent bond sale that was very successful, and other debt that has been retired) the cost of the hall to the taxpayer, assuming a price tag of $13.6 million, would be around one cent per dollar (around $60 per year for the average homeowner). In 2008, Leon did a similar projection based on the original price of $10.5 million. Back then it was going to cost the taxpayer more than two cents on the dollar.
Whatever your views are on the new hall, it’s really, really, really difficult to oppose it on financial grounds. If you are a Cape May taxpayer and you are not willing to spend around $60 a year on such a wonderful addition to the infrastructure of this town then I don’t even know what to say to you.
A couple people wondered how much it was going to cost the city to actually run the new hall, and that’s a good question. It would obviously be pretty hard to answer that with any degree of accuracy, but I’m confident that the hall would offer so much potential for revenue that we would have no reason at all to worry about it being a drag on the taxpayers.
Aubrey Kent was one of the people wheeled out by the city for the presentation. He is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Philadelphia’s Temple University and talked about how much revenue the new center could attract in four categories – community recreation and leisure; public events, such as fairs and concerts; private rental capability, from conferences to weddings; and rental income from the retail stores and restaurant.
He based his estimates on the numbers of people who came to the old hall, using the same prices that they previously paid. That was smart, given that this is the most conservative standpoint to take. You only need to look at the design of the new hall to figure out that: 1. Many more people will want to visit it; 2. There will be scope for MANY more activities there than before; 3. People could be expected to pay a bit more money than they would have in the old center.
Anyway, keeping to these conservative parameters, Aubrey said the new hall would pull in a minimum of $550,000, but he said that was using numbers that “wildly undrestimate the value of the convention hall, given its very desired location and attractiveness as a building.” Aubrey said he was confident the planned new building would likely bring in up to $1 million every year.
Steve Markley, from Hunter Roberts Construction Group, who are managing the construction of the new halll, said that the cost of the Cape May center would compare very favorable with the much-criticized Wildwoods Convention Center. It is a 100,000 square-foot building that cost $700 per square foot, while the proposed new 32,000 square-foot Cape May building, which is being built seven years later, would cost $400 per square foot.
Mayor Mahaney said the new building would help make Cape May once again a 10.5-month economy. “It has slipped back to a seven to eight-month economy,” he told the meeting.
I agree with him wholeheartedly (you won’t see that too often in my column) and I hope that the three new members of council – Deanna Fiocca, Bill Murray and Jack Wichterman – will agree that, despite their reservations, the story that the city told last week was a compelling case that we need to move ahead right now with a building that will grace the city’s lovely beachfront and provide both residents and visitors with a center that will please the eye and benefit the city coffers.
We’ve talked enough. More than enough. We’ve had six public meetings. Let’s do this!