It’s Your Business: Expanded convention center needed to boost local economy

Alex Crowley, city of Bloomington economic and sustainable development director.

We are fortunate, in Bloomington and Monroe County, to live in a community that is an appealing destination for tourists and visitors and such a great place to live. People come from far and wide to avail themselves of our rich arts and culture scene, our restaurants and shops, our many athletic events including the mighty Hoosiers, our outstanding outdoor amenities and so many other high quality-of-life offerings.

While many of us locals might prefer those times when we have the place to ourselves, the truth of the matter is that we would not enjoy our quality of life were it not for the important economic impact of tourism and visitors to the community. Our small businesses depend upon visitor patronage, our arts organizations and festivals depend upon audiences composed of people coming in from across the region. We simply don’t have the local population to support the rich cultural environment we have come to expect.

One important challenge is that our tourism tends to concentrate itself around weekends and other holidays.  This means that many parts of the infrastructure in place to absorb peaks in visitors — hotels, restaurants, shops, venues — face a feast and famine cycle of business. Near total hotel occupancy on football weekends or IU graduation, then relative tumbleweeds on the following weekdays. It makes staffing nearly impossible to manage, revenues whiplash up and down and, ultimately, this weakens our local tourism businesses.

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One role of a convention center is to help fill in the valleys between our current tourism peaks. While a convention center certainly plays an important role as a local gathering place for our own organizations — whether for corporate training or quilt shows or community conferences — an expanded convention center positions our community to attract more external visitors during those otherwise slower periods, notably weekdays, when tourism is otherwise not as robust.

Unfortunately, our current convention center is too small to attract the size of conventions that would have a material effect on evening out the local tourism economy. According to Visit Bloomington, we have over time regularly turned away regional and national gatherings that would otherwise want to convene in Bloomington. We simply do not have the space to accommodate them. That means our local tourism businesses have had to forgo the corresponding economic impact and have been forced to weather the weekly and seasonal ups and downs.

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A legitimate question during the pandemic was: Now that we have all figured out Zoom, will we ever want to travel again for business and conferences? Indications are that the answer is “yes” and then some, even if the trends will look different than pre-pandemic trends. The local tourism industry is on pace to have a record year in 2022. According to industry analyses, convention and event travel will help lead growth in travel in the next several years.

Not every travel destination will be well positioned to attract and leverage visitors. But Bloomington and Monroe County can be, with our quality-of-life amenities, the strength of the IU alumni network, and our supporting tourism infrastructure. Bloomington can only reap the projected $18 million annual impact and estimated 250+ new jobs associated with a more regular pace of visitors if we substantially increase the size of our convention center. And that expansion can and should reflect the rich culture of our community in its design while creating physical connections between the gatherings happening inside and the economic impact to our surrounding community. The placement of an expanded convention center within a few short blocks of our downtown makes that connection possible.

We appreciate the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce’s efforts, and those of Downtown Bloomington Inc. and Visit Bloomington and many others, to help the city and county find mutually beneficial terms to advance this important effort.

Alex Crowley is director of Bloomington’s Economic and Sustainable Development Department.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: City director Expanded convention center needed to boost local economy

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