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Luring Conventions to the Magic City

A new Westin hotel will anchor an entertainment complex that Birmingham hopes will put it on the map for large conventions.

“If you build it, they will come…” It was a refrain that echoed in star Kevin Costner’s thoughts during his role as a farmer and baseball aficionado in the movie, “Field of Dreams.” A similar thought has been occupying the minds of many Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex supporters during the past years.

With the official announcement of a new Westin Hotel and entertainment district in early April, ground was broken on a Birmingham field of dreams, a center with ample hotel capacity and proposed attractions, such as fine restaurants, shops, musical entertainment and other appeals to lure convention and other businesses back to Birmingham.

Jim Smither, president of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, says the new district is sure to change the BJCC’s marketing efforts and attract new business, which is crucial to economic growth.

“Someone once asked the manager of the Sheraton what would happen if another hotel was built, and he said he would be there with a shovel to help,” Smither says. “The more rooms we can offer in a compact area, the more chance we have of booking business. Our job is to sell all of it. They build it, and we sell it.”

Smither says while it is unknown what exactly will be included as entertainment, he’s confident nightclubs, shops and restaurants are the key to creating an ideal venue.

“Our sales people have received a lot of positive feedback already,” he says. “It gives them something very positive to sit down and talk to customers about. We have had customers for the last 20 years who’ve said, if you do xyz, we’ll look at Birmingham. We’re doing that, and hopefully a new rotation of customers will start looking at us.”

Tad Snider, interim executive director of the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex, explains that the primary reason for developing the entertainment district immediately neighboring the BJCC is “to give attendees and patrons options for entertainment and dining. We want them to have the ability to find entertainment within walking distance.”

Key to the project’s success is a 10-story, 300-room Westin Hotel, which raises the number of committable rooms next to the convention complex to a quantity that can be marketed to the many businesses that have, in the past, been unable to schedule events in Birmingham due to the lack of hotel rooms or meeting rooms. The Sheraton, owned by the same group, has 370 rooms.

“The addition of these rooms makes our area much more appealing for the sales teams who are selling the convention complex,” Snider says. “And with dining and entertainment options close by, that heightens the attraction.”

Snider says though no leases have yet been signed for new businesses in the area, a number of potential tenants have expressed interest.

Currently, principals in the project are in discussions with a prominent local chef, as well as other restaurateurs who will spice up the culinary appeal of the entertainment district.

“We have a Request for Proposal (RFP) out right now to bring on board a leasing and marketing partner,” Snider says. “They will take care of the heavy lifting going forward with a sole focus on leasing of the entertainment district.”

Snider says, ideally, the district would include restaurants uniquely appealing.

“The amount of interest we’ve received so far is encouraging,” Snider says. “Having the Westin increase the number of committable rooms was crucial. We now have 1,000 committable rooms in the area, and from the feedback we’ve gotten, 1,000 is the magic number. That’s a critical part of the success of the whole. By selling the convention complex, that feeds the entertainment district and drives the occupancy of our hotels, which makes the whole model work.”

Snider says having Starwood Hotel and Resorts bring a Westin to the area adds a certain cachet to the entertainment district.

“It’s a good marriage between the Sheraton brand, which we currently own, and the Westin,” he says. “Both fall under Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which means a lot of energy and efficiency with two hotels in the same family across the street from each other. That means shared operational expense. It’s a win/win having two hotels under the same umbrella.”

Snider recalls when the prospect for expanding the BJCC was first broached 12 years ago. The appeal of the new district is not only to convention planners and trade show organizers, but to people coming to Birmingham for concerts and Broadway shows. Having an entertainment district adjacent to their lodging has been a need. Restaurants, entertainment, shopping, an opportunity for music, a sports bar and a central area for sightseeing should further the appeal to individuals, Snider says.

“The board of directors for the BJCC always has had long-term plans in regard to the importance of an area like this for advancing the BJCC. With the city of Birmingham’s participation and cooperation, their willingness to go ahead and advance this program now has us all very excited.”

The BJCC has received a portion of lodging tax from the city for approximately three years, Snider says.

Tom Barnett, city finance director, says without the Westin and the planned entertainment district, the BJCC was losing revenue to cities with larger and more convenient facilities. While inking contracts with tenants is a work in progress, Barnett believes the district will fulfill its ambition to showcase the best.

“The city has been appropriating an amount of money to the civic center authority since 1989,” Barnett says. “What we’ve done is just continue that amount of appropriation, and we’re using that to pay debt service on the bonds to fund the project.”

The total commitment is just under $5 million a year.

“The BJCC had not, to date, been able to compete for a lot of conventions, because it didn’t have a thousand rooms within a short distance of the civic center,” Barnett says. “This provides a block of rooms that will allow them to go after more conventions and meetings. The entertainment district ties right in, because it gives all those people by the civic center an opportunity to shop and dine right by the hotel. It should bring in local people, as well.”

According to developer Robert Schwartz, president of National Ventures Group, he began working on the concept of building a Westin in Birmingham about 18 months ago during conversations with then executive director of the BJCC, Jack Fields.

“We were meeting with the board of directors on pretty much a one-on-one basis,” Schwartz says. “We finally did make a formal presentation about a year ago. However, it was very difficult for the BJCC to arrange the financing, and without financing, there is no project.”

Schwartz says the need to increase hotel occupancy for potential patrons in Birmingham was apparent.

“Mayor William Bell, also a member of the board of the BJCC by virtue of being mayor, basically took over the reins of the project and did an extremely complicated, but intelligent finance strategy that worked.”

For the Westin, a fall 2012 completion date is expected while the build-out of the entertainment district should come in late 2013.

Snider, who has been with the BJCC for 18 years, worked with the former executive director on projects and development for the past six years, preparing him for his role as executive director.

“This is something we’ve known for a long time that we needed to round out our package and makes us as attractive as possible,” Snider says. “We’re going to give people something they’ve wanted for years. To see it coming to fruition now is very rewarding. It greatly elevates what our sales people can offer when going out and attracting conventions and meetings to our area.

“This (entertainment district) is going to make the whole package more attractive.”

In a detailed report from failed sales over the years, Snider can pinpoint exactly why Birmingham has lost business to other cities. He says the report reflects more than 438,000 group rooms lost during the tracking period, due at least in part to an insufficient number of hotel rooms and dates not being available, a problem the Westin’s accommodations will solve.

“We feel we will have a significantly greater opportunity to secure (business) after the hotel and entertainment district come online,” Snider says. “Our convention bureau and hotel sales teams will be in contact with (many of the companies lost in the past) to share with them the project and the enhancements it provides to our city, convention center and hotel package.”

According to Dave Rickey, senior vice president of the Birmingham Business Alliance, its affiliate, Blueprint Birmingham is working to enhance all aspects of a seven-county region’s cultural and entertainment amenities. Blueprint Birmingham is an action plan to create jobs and improve quality of life for residents. The new hotel and entertainment district will be part of the success of metropolitan Birmingham and surrounding areas.

“It’s one of the key year one priorities under community and regional stewardship to develop a downtown entertainment district,” Rickey says. “It’s important to have an entertainment district. BBA promotes such issues as economic development, quality of life and entertainment. Amenities are very, very important when looking at trying to retain jobs or bringing new jobs into this area.”

The Westin design, created by Atlanta-based architectural firm Rabun Rasche Rector Reece Architects, is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designated building. Schwartz has taken a hands-on role in the project, visiting Birmingham at least once a week to be sure the facility is on track.

“One of the unique things about this hotel is the design,” Schwartz says. “The mayor had a great impact on the design in that he really wanted it to be a combination of modern and traditional. And I think in working with the architects, his representative Virginia Williams has come up with a superb design that really will satisfy everybody.”

Birmingham Mayor William Bell Sr. says, “The Westin Hotel and entertainment district complex represent the first major development in the northern part of the city in 20 years. This project will be our catalyst for new development throughout the city. Our goal is to not only bring jobs to the city, but do so in an environmentally sound way, positioning Birmingham at the forefront of the green build movement.”

“This hotel is totally critical to the Birmingham area,” Schwartz says. “It will be a new quality-level hotel for the city and will draw others, because success breeds success.”

Cara Clark is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

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