Big changes are being made at the Fort Smith Convention Center by the new management company, including the addition of a new full catering kitchen, which should be complete by the end of July.
Marc Mulherin, convention center general manager, said convention center staff has been working on changes since new management took over Jan. 1. Everything has been deep cleaned, including the carpets, the walls and even the light switches. Personnel has been hired. And purchased new small ware, such as plates and silverware.
Management is working with ArcBest to see if a partnership agreement can be reached to put new carpet in the ArcBest Performing Arts Center, Mulherin said, noting they are waiting for an ArcBest response.
New electronic signs now indicate which events are scheduled for which rooms and new electronic signage will soon be up at all the concession areas, Mulherin added. The company is working hard to increase the economic impact the convention center brings to Fort Smith, he said.
The Fort Smith Board of Directors unanimously approved a contract to allow Los Angeles-based Oak View Group (OVG) to manage the Fort Smith Convention Center beginning Jan. 1. The contract has an initial 3-year term, with options for up to seven subsequent one-year terms. The city will pay a management fee of $8,500 a month, subject to annual CPI adjustment, plus commission on food and beverage sales. There also will be possible performance and sales commission incentives.
OVG agreed to invest up to $500,000 to put a full-service commercial kitchen in the convention center. They will recoup that expense through $50,000 annual installment payments for 10 years that would come from the facility’s operating fund. That rate would be prorated over the number of years the agreement was in effect if the contract is terminated before 10 years, the agreement states. OVG also will make a $25,000 investment for an initial “Solicitation of Events” fund.
So far, OVG has invested roughly $300,000 in the kitchen addition and small projects, Mulherin said. The other $200,000 will be utilized down the road, when management sees what else is needed to complete the food and beverage projects, he said.
OVG has hired new managers of operations, marketing and food and beverage, and the search is on for a new executive chef. At the moment, that will round out the management team, though more positions might be added later, Mulherin said.
“We will be needing several part-time positions that will pay $15 an hour. Those positions will have great hours. We are excited to be able to offer more jobs to the area,” he said.
The addition of the full commercial kitchen and executive chef will allow the convention center to meet all the needs of those booking space for meetings, conventions or special events.
“Before people had to hire an outside caterer. Almost every convention center across the country can offer in-house catering,” Mulherin said. “We will be able to do that. Whether they are looking for trendy options or comfort food, we’ll be able to do it.”
Though the center has some small tastings scheduled in the coming months that will utilize the new kitchen, the first large event on the schedule that will use the new in-house catering will be the Arkansas Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators state convention in October, which is expected to have 300-350 in attendance.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and renovations, booking had been down for the convention center, but things are picking up. Mulherin said there have been more bookings coming in for meetings and small conventions for the latter third quarter and fourth quarter of the year.
“We’re pretty excited about it. This is our goal. To have more events, meetings and conventions, the things that get people into Fort Smith, staying at the hotels, eating at restaurants, using the golf courses, shopping,” Mulherin said. “That’s the specific goal of the city as well as us — to increase economic impact.”
Mulherin said it is common knowledge that in general convention centers do not make money, but they bring visitors to a city, which adds to sales tax income and other revenue. The goal of OVG for the Fort Smith Convention Center is to raise the economic impact generated by events at the convention center from $10 million to $15 million a year to up to $30 million a year, he said.
“This is what we want — to increase the economic impact, create jobs and really help the community and the city,” Mulherin said.
His goal also is to decrease the amount of annual subsidy the City of Fort Smith has to put into the convention center. The convention center brought in $912,661 in total revenue in 2019, a 9.49% increase from the $833,546 generated in 2018, according to a report submitted in June 2020. Convention center expenses rose marginally in 2019, coming in at $1.611 million, up .13% from the $1.608 million in 2018. The overall operating subsidy from the city in 2019 was $777,000.