The Montezuma County Commission is considering construction of a multimillion dollar convention center at the county fairgrounds if the city of Cortez, tourism groups and chambers cover building maintenance and staffing costs.
“We believe there is a need for a convention center in our community, and the county is ready to commit to the capital costs for the building,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel. “But we need buy-in from other entities on operations.”
The plan was presented during a brainstorming session at the Cortez Welcome Center Wednesday attended by Cortez and county officials, hotel managers, business and tourism representatives.
The county envisions a modern convention center positioned along a small mesa on the south side of the fairgrounds with views of Mesa Verde.
Initial plans include a main meeting hall that can seat hundreds of people, a commercial kitchen, conference rooms, an outdoor amphitheater, pedestrian areas and a greenbelt.
The county has already begun in-house planning, including conceptual drawings and infrastructure plans to upgrade septic and electrical at the fairgrounds.
A needs assessment will be conducted in the next 40 days and will include surveying at least 30 local businesses to get feedback on the idea.
The size and costs have not yet been determined, and need further analysis. As a starting point, estimates for a 20,000-square-foot convention center would be about $4 million, said commissioner Jim Candelaria, who has run a construction firm.
Commissioners said they would finance the costs in-house and with grants. Donors would be sought through a fundraising campaign. The county has reserves of $28 million and expects more than $1 million in back taxes owed by Kinder Morgan, Ertel said.
The convention center idea had support from local hotel owners and Mesa Verde Country, a tourism and marketing organization.
They said one way to help cover staffing and maintenance costs would be through the lodgers tax, which is applied to the cost of hotel rooms. The county’s lodging tax is 1.9 percent, and the city’s is 2 percent.
Officials discussed raising the lodging tax to generate funding for convention center operation costs. Raising the tax does not require a public vote, officials said, and could be authorized by elected county and officials.
“Our lodging taxes are low compared to other areas in the state,” said Mark Drudge, director of Cortez Retail Enhancement Association.
Justin Vasteuy, general manager of Holiday Inn Express in Cortez, said increasing the lodgers tax would likely “not get much pushback” from locals because it would be paid for by visitors.
There was discussion that lodging fees are rolled into the cost of a hotel room, and are not really noticed.
How much the lodgers tax might increase would need further study once details of the convention center and maintenance costs are fleshed out.
Brian Bartlett, general manager of the Baymont Inn and Suites, presented a report on regional convention centers in Montrose, Ridgway and Salida.
The recently built $10.5 million Montrose Convention Center is 93,000 square feet and can hold 1,750 people. Its commercial kitchen has spurred a cottage food industry, Bartlett said, and it is positioned to attract clients when convention centers in Grand Junction are booked.
Ridgway has a 52,000-square-foot convention center. Besides hosting conferences, it hosts concerts, weddings and a popular fall colors photography clinic.
Bartlett said advice he received from convention center officials included designing for more storage and breakdown space than you might think, having strong Wi-Fi technology and infrastructure, pedestrian areas, covered outdoor areas and loading docks.
“Adequate budgeting for exterior maintenance should also not be overlooked, because you always want it to be shiny as a pearl for the first impression,” he said.
Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek said the project could benefit from a consultant or feasibility study to determine the best size. It was noted that planning and construction grants are available from the state Department of Local Affairs.
A convention center would attract visitors and spur the economy by filling hotel rooms and restaurants, said commissioner Larry Don Suckla. County attractions like Mesa Verde National Park and hiking and biking trails will help extend their stay.
“It would be a break-even venture; we’re not looking to make money off of it,” he said.
“The benefit is for the local economy,” Ertel said, and is not intended to generate revenue for county government. “The county eventually benefits when a healthy economy spurs population growth and people buy homes.”
Officials noted that convention centers can take three to five years before they start to pay for themselves.
The next meeting will be on April 17 at 9 a.m. at the Cortez Welcome Center.