PROVO — Planning and serendipity are each playing significant roles in the downtown revitalization effort here that takes a big step forward with the May 12 launch of the Utah Valley Convention Center.
"It's huge. It's the facilitator for economic development in a very large way," Provo Mayor John Curtis said of the convention center. "What we're seeing now is the result of decades of hard work by many people."
Utah County bonded to built the $42 million facility. Commission Chairman Larry Ellertson said a planning objective is to "bring people into the area and give them a good experience, one that causes them to want them to return."
The county is also banking on the convention center bringing about $18 million a year to the local economy, and that it will be a catalyst for additional commercial development, including more restaurants and destination hotels.
Serendipity came into play in December 2010, after an accidental fire gutted the LDS Church's historic downtown tabernacle.
"No one is glad the tabernacle burned. That was a huge loss," Curtis said. The church announced the following April it would rebuild the tabernacle as a temple, which will turn a landmark that is dear to the hearts of Provo locals into something that attracts more visitors and prompts additional downtown development and renovation.
"All the city planning in the world would not have delivered an LDS temple in the downtown area," Curtis said. "In one fell swoop it was like everything happening downtown was on steroids. Everything took a leap forward with that announcement."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has since purchased two properties on the block south of the temple project and purchased a parking stack just west of the tabernacle from NuSkin.
The church also wants to buy the segment of 100 South between the temple site and the block south so it can join the two blocks. The city's Planning Commission on Wednesday recommended the city approve that sale.
Conspicuously out of place with the other changes is the aging downtown post office that occupies the west half of the block south of the temple site. There are conversations about moving the post office so the entire block can be part of the temple grounds, though no formal plans have been announced, and a regional spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service said it has not received a formal request for the property.
"Anybody who looks at the layout there, who's talking about the long-term, has their eye on the post office," Curtis said.
The Utah Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau has its eye on the temple project as well. Joel Racker, the bureau's president and CEO, is watching to see whether the church demolishes the NuSkin parking stack and builds new underground parking, like the church did with its City Creek project in downtown Salt Lake City.
"What I've heard is that they're going to take it all down and go underground," he said. "You look at what they've done at City Creek, and they've done a fabulous job."
The convention staff is also laying plans for conventions that have nothing to do with the temple project. Provo's Municipal Council unanimously approved a new category of beer license one week ago that will accommodate public events at the convention center.
Racker said the change makes the community welcoming to people attending conventions but allows Provo to maintain its sense of place. "We're trying to be uniquely Provo."
Provo, as a convention destination, is being promoted as having a historic feel, Racker said. "Our tag line is 'accessible, affordable and credible.' "
The "accessible" element benefits from nearly-completed I-15 reconstruction, plans for additional public transit that will connect downtown Provo with downtown Salt Lake City, and the recent addition of commercial airline service, by Frontier, directly to the Provo Municipal Airport.
Curtis said the commercial flights do more than bring airline passengers to town. "There's a pride factor for Provo, that we have our own airport with commercial flights."
The convention center's 85,578 square feet of meeting and garden space, 19,620 square feet of exhibit space and its 16,894 square-foot Grand Ballroom position the facility as larger than existing conference space in the Provo Marriott across the street and much, much smaller than the half-million square feet at the Salt Palace Convention Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
Racker said the new facility will rely heavily on the adjacent Marriott for guest rooms, but he is anxious to see new destination hotels downtown as well.
The public/private development strategy is that the existing Marriott will benefit from the adjacent, publicly financed convention center, and that the convention center will attract new, privately-financed hotel development. No new hotels are announced, but there are potential deals in play between developers and property owners, Racker said.
With more hotels, the convention center can expand. "The whole west side of the building is constructed of temporary material so this can be doubled in size," he said. "It's our intent to double the size in the next few years."
The majority of events already booked at the new convention center "peak at about 250 rooms a night and can be accommodated at the Marriott. But some need 700," Racker said. There are enough rooms in the county to accommodate that, but not within walking distance, which is what most convention planners want.
A county feasibility study projects hotels would capture 20 percent of the money conventioneers bring to town, retailers would take 15 percent and restaurants would capture 36 percent.
Racker expects the convention center will soon attract several dozen new restaurants, which will also help make downtown more interesting to locals.
"There really are a lot of things lining up to make Provo a destination," Racker said. "I think we're going to see our renaissance happen very soon."
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