Jonesboro A&P commission picks Keller over ASU convention center project

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 542 views 

Rendering of the possible Jonesboro hotel appearance with the Keller Convention Center project.

Jonesboro Advertising and Planning Commission Chairman Thom Beasley said Wednesday it was a matter of not comparing apples to apples but comparing “apples to pears” when discussing two competing convention center projects.

There are two convention center projects being debated in Jonesboro. The ASU Board of Trustees voted Feb. 26 to approve the O’Reilly project. Missouri based O’Reilly Hospitality Management is wanting to build a 202-room hotel, 40,000 square foot conference center and a Houlihan’s restaurant at the former ASU track complex.

Illinois-based Keller Management is looking to build a 159-room hotel, a 37,000 square foot convention center and likely a second hotel on a 40-acre plot of land at the former Arkansas Services Center.

The commission voted 3-2 Wednesday to appropriate funding for the North Arkansas Hotel/Convention Center, or Keller project, after a nearly two hour meeting. The Keller project funding includes $150,000 for year one (2018) , $100,000 for year two (2019) and $50,000 for year three (2020) including a $200,000 cap per year on hotel tax abatements.

Voting yes on the Keller project were commissioners Naz Kazi, Bill Hurt and Matt Crawford. Voting no were commissioners Chris Gibson and Cathy Cardwell. Beasley didn’t vote while commissioner Rennell Woods abstained.

The commission also voted 3-2 against a proposal from O’Reilly Hospitality Management on their convention center project. Gibson and Cardwell voted yes, while Kazi, Hurt and Crawford voted no. Beasley did not vote while Woods abstained.

About a dozen businesses in Jonesboro announced Monday (Feb. 29) their support for the O’Reilly project.

Arkansas State University Chancellor Tim Hudson issued a statement that included a clear reminder of who and what the A&P rejected.

“We are very disappointed by the Jonesboro A&P Commission’s decision today. The public-private partnership between Arkansas State and O’Reilly Hospitality Management will bring an upper-upscale hotel and convention center to our community at an ideal location. The cooperative effort of the city’s second-largest employer and home to 13,000 students and an experienced developer of hospitality venues throughout the U.S. is significant for Jonesboro and the region. It will allow A-State to establish a new academic program and enhance student recruitment. We are grateful to the city’s medical centers and businesses who have expressed support for our partnership. We look forward to continuing our plans with O’Reilly and will always focus on what is best for our students, who clearly understand the value of this project for our campus.”

O’Reilly had requested a series of six, three-year contracts for their project, starting in late 2017 or early 2018. The amounts range from $157,302 the first year, $177,274 the second year and $200,000 in year three, Beasley told the crowd. The proposed agreement would have put a $200,000 cap on hotel tax abatements and would have guaranteed a $200,000 a year payment to help with marketing the convention center, among other things.

Beasley said the search for a new convention center in Jonesboro has been a 10-year odyssey and now the city may get two centers. Beasley also said the recent debate over a convention center has drawn a lot of attention in the press, “some accurate and some not so accurate.”

“I don’t think we will make everyone happy today but we are here today to do our job,” Beasley said.

Beasley noted the commission’s only source of revenue – a three percent sales tax on hotel rooms – brought in $639,000 in 2015 while there were over $800,000 in requests last year.

“There is no way to guarantee the revenue,” Beasley said of the requests from both groups.

Beasley asked representatives with the Keller and O’Reilly groups to put together their formal proposals for the commission to review.

A question was asked to both Keller and ASU by Beasley.

“There has been a question as to whether there will be a hotel management program (with Keller),” Beasley asked the Keller group.

“Yes, that is correct,” Keller said, noting that the program will teach everything from accounting to house keeping as part of the program.

Dr. Lynita Cooksey, ASU Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Research, said the hotel management course with Keller could not be done at ASU due to logistic concerns. The O’Reilly project is already slated to have a hotel management program on the ASU-Jonesboro campus. Cooksey said the feasibility of tying a program to campus helps students as well as professors with studying.

“What concerns me is that the hotel will drive the curriculum, not the university,” Cooksey said, noting there would be a problem with accreditation.

Cooksey said about 85% of the programs at ASU are accredited through various groups.

However, Chuck Keller said a program at the Keller School at Northwestern University has a campus in south Florida.

Forrest Langenfeld, an official with the Keller group, said they were “very thrilled to partner with A&P on the project.” Langenfeld said the debate was straining for all concerned.

“We hold ASU in high regard,” Langenfeld said, noting Keller did not see an ‘us versus them’ situation. “We have to the community with a private business model. We are also very happy to end a long drawn-out process.”

Darren Harralson, with O’Reilly, said the group was obviously disappointed with the vote. Harralson said the group would look at its options, but plan to move forward on the project.

Mayor Harold Perrin also released a statement on the meeting Wednesday.
“I’m pleased that Jonesboro will be getting a convention center. This city government and others have been working on a convention center for at least seven years, and it appears that it will soon be a reality.

“I would like to congratulate Chuck Keller Sr. and his organization for putting together a successful proposal, and we look forward to working with him in the future to bring more people to Jonesboro for meetings, conventions and other activities.

“I also would like to express my appreciation to the A&P Commission for thoroughly analyzing the two proposals that were put forward and for making the difficult decision.

“Although ASU’s proposal was not successful in getting A&P money, there should not be any doubt about the fact that Jonesboro strongly supports our university. If O’Reilly Hospitality Management goes forward with its hotel and convention center proposal, we will do whatever we can to help.”