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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2004

SeaGate Centre at crossroads

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
SeaGate director Jim Donnelly says the downtown center is losing convention business and needs to expand to survive. SeaGate director Jim Donnelly says the downtown center is losing convention business and needs to expand to survive.
HIRES / BLADE Enlarge

Jim Donnelly's pride in the SeaGate Centre is obvious as he walks through the downtown Toledo convention facility.

But the SeaGate director knows he loses numerous conventions every year because the center lacks a dedicated ballroom and sufficient meeting space.

For Mr. Donnelly, the issue of whether to undertake an expansion will determine whether the 17-year-old convention center will continue to attract out-of-town tourists or become an operation that's geared primarily to local events.

"We're either going to grow in the marketplace or say we're no longer a convention center, we're a civic center, and we'll only cater to the local constituency," Mr. Donnelly said. "Quite honestly, that's what we would have to do because we don't have enough space to hold convention activity that would really be necessary to be an economic magnet."

Mark Luetke, chairman of SeaGate's long-range planning committee and vice president of its board, said examining an expansion is "priority number one" for the committee. He said the lack of a dedicated ballroom and meeting space causes SeaGate to miss out on larger conventions that are just too big for the center.

"This is our last chance to get it right and move forward with a plan that meets the business needs of the convention center," he said.

The quandary's not a new one. In 2001, a study SeaGate commissioned suggested expanding the center by adding a 25,000-square-foot ballroom and additional meeting rooms. The estimated cost for the proposed project was $15 million to $20 million. The facility, which opened in 1987 and cost about $42 million to build, has about 94,000 square feet of space.

Though the study has done little more than gather dust, Mr. Donnelly believes discussions about building a new arena near SeaGate and Fifth Third Field offer a renewed opportunity to meet the space needs of the convention center. Combining an arena with SeaGate could solve the center's problems and add more growth to the revitalizing area around the ballpark, he said.

"If the arena were located adjacent to the convention center and we were integrated into the design of that, could we build a ballroom in that? Could we build additional meeting space so we don't have to expand SeaGate?" he said.

If an arena is built in East Toledo to replace the aging Sports Arena as was proposed last week by a Phoenix developer, Mr. Donnelly said the new arena could end up competing with SeaGate for the nonconvention events that makes up 35 percent of the center's business.

Last year, SeaGate hosted 33 conventions and 46 public events and trade shows. In 2002, it had 34 conventions and 50 public events and trade shows.

Scott Shook, president of the SeaGate board, said while the convention center could use a ballroom and extra space, no concrete plan has been formulated for an expansion.

He said he views SeaGate as an "economic engine" that brings people to Toledo and helps the economy, which is the center's mission.

"Given all the truly remarkable things happening around Fifth Third Field, we want to do our part to make sure that continues to be successful down there," Mr. Shook said.

Talk about an expansion, premature or not, leads inevitably to how it would be paid for. Existing debt on SeaGate is scheduled to be retired in 2016, at which point the county will own the building. So the commissioners will play a key role in any expansion plans.

Harry Barlos, president of the board of commissioners, said meetings between the commissioners and SeaGate officials should be held "in the near future" to discuss the future of the facility, particularly if any plans come together for combining the convention center with a new arena.

"SeaGate Convention Centre is in a prime position to be an integral part in the growth of tourism in our city," he said.

Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said expanding the convention center could spur more development, but figuring out how to pay for it would be the trick. Nonetheless, she said expanded or not, the growth around SeaGate makes it an attractive venue.

"There's more for the convention attendees to get from our downtown than ever before," she said.

Commissioner Maggie Thurber said SeaGate's board needs to address the issue first and come up with an expansion plan before approaching the board of commissioners.

"I know they have an awful lot of challenges ahead of them about how we're going to do it, how we're going to pay for it, and how do we design it," she said.

Contact Dale Emch at: daleemch@theblade.com or 419-724-6061.



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