The effort to get a major hotel built downtown has been a topic of conversation plus the sweat equity of Rome leaders probably for longer than the county has tried to figure out how to get much beyond bull riding and high-school graduations to use The Forum so it can turn a profit — about 20 years.
If locking up the hotel on city-owned West Third Street land is contingent upon it wooing, winning and controlling events coming to the convention center so as to generate room-rental business, fine. Do it.
Heck, offer to toss in management of Barron Stadium, right across the street from the hotel site. That is massively underutilized given the size of the public’s investment and, with the NAIA football championship game now pulling out after 2014, that exceptionally fine facility really is going to need some professional sales assistance.
The Forum, believe it or not and many won’t, actually has stuff going on inside much of the time. There are 12 booked activities in the coming week, for instance. It’s just that holding cake-decorating classes hardly puts a major facility able to host Willie Nelson once every couple of years on the state/regional radar nor cause cash registers to ring merrily at nearby businesses. It needs help and salesmanship, and has for about two decades now.
CALLING IN the pros to attempt a rescue is hardly some novelty in these parts where, time and again, the fact that government tends to be absolutely terrible at running business ventures has been repeatedly proven. No surprise. It’s like asking farmers to sell world cruises on the side. Indeed, about the only time such is ever profitable is when government operates a monopoly with a captive customer base while controlling the prices paid — water being about the only local example. Some neighboring communities, smarter long ago, have done quite well by getting into the electricity, gas and even Internet businesses.
The city’s Stonebridge public golf course was a financial triple bogey until turned over to private management. The county’s deal with the Braves to manage and operate the taxpayer-built baseball stadium in return for a piece of the action has, to this point, appeared to work out rather well.
By the way, spearheading the Samson Developers/Duke Hospitality effort to get the hotel with Forum linkup is Rome’s own David Doss who, as a county commissioner more than 20 years ago, tried mightily to keep the convention center from being built where it is now, instead wanting it moved out of town entirely. Changed your mind about that one yet, David? That said, accomplishing a hotel/Forum linkup is not going to be a walk across the new pedestrian bridge over the Oostanaula River and through the front door.
THAT IS a county-owned building, built with taxpayer money, and it needs considerable upgrading and sprucing up after 20 years. Such would be the responsibility of the county. Right now, as the hotel group’s architects have already pointed out, the place looks more like a gym than a conference center with painted concrete block walls, worn carpeting, visiting-team style bathrooms and technology that almost predates the appearance of computers.
That’s going to cost a bundle to make right — and it still should wind up able to function as a concert hall large enough to bring in name acts and an arena for at least some sports events. (The rodeos and tractor pulls may have to go elsewhere.) And, if intelligence takes hold, extra space might be added by slicing off the 40-foot main arena headroom to expand the second floor ... perhaps making the 500-capacity upstairs ballroom able to hold 1,000 or more.
Actually, this should not be hard to pay for despite the county’s current operating budget pinch and not even needing voter approval. Revenue bonds could be used, hardly uncommon hereabouts (the new parking deck, for example). However, where The Forum is concerned one couldn’t blame county commissioners for having long memories and nervous stomachs. The checkered history of bad decisions and failed dreams regarding The Forum, visions of sugar-plum hotels and parking decks is enough to create a book of “War and Peace” length.
FOR EXAMPLE, while The Forum remains a handsome building on the outside it was stripped down to a shell in order to deal with finishing the adjoining courthouse in an early SPLOST overrun that, lesson learned, has never since been repeated. Not only were the convention center’s mechanicals shorted (not enough power to run spotlights in the first concert held there) but the county issued more than $2 million in revenue bonds backed by The Forum’s future supposed success for “furniture.” In the ha-ha-funny terminology then in use, “furniture” meant the heating/air-conditioning equipment for the courthouse.
Until fairly recently, the County Commission was still making those bond payments not from Forum profits — a year of breaking even was considered a triumph with government management — but from the property/sales tax kitty.
And then there was the effort to bring a hotel to about where the new parking deck now stands — by another Marriott-affiliated group — so that all the big stars and name acts expected to appear every week at The Forum would have a nice place to stay. The hotel folks demanded a three-story parking deck to give them 150 spaces with the county owning the rest to rent to create the revenue to pay off bonds. The County Commission at the time didn’t go for that deal.
And so forth ad infinitum, which is plenty of good reason to demand caution, care and wisdom in pursuing the current proposal. Not only the hotel folks but also the city and county governments with stakes in this have to be happy with the final agreement as does, most important of all, the general public.
PUBLIC investment in, or encouragement with tax breaks, of such as sports facilities, convention centers, hotels has community “profits” not all understand. The benefits come only with their being successful so that jobs are created, sales/room/etc. taxes generated that in turn spread out and lessen the tax load on the permanent residents.
There has be creative, professional marketing and then a fine experience when coming to what was built.
Greater Rome has a mixed track record regarding such spending of public dollars because not enough folks have come to not enough activities for too much of the time. The golf course ... no. The Forum ... no. The Braves Stadium, pretty good but alas baseball seasons are not 365 days long. The tennis courts ... would that everything had turned out so well.
If an ugly duckling Forum can finally be turned into a swan by the private sector while at the same time opening up the promised land of opportunity along West Third Street then — go for it!