Consultants to determine feasibility of local conference center

CSL, a consultant firm from Minneapolis, MN, will soon be taking a close look at Vermillion to see if the community has the potential to support a conference center.

The consultants were officially �hired� two weeks ago following decisions made by the board of directors of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company (VCDC) and a governance council of Vermillion Now!, a local effort to use locally-donated capital for new business recruitment and expansion, marketing, workforce development and entrepreneurial development.

A local conference center task force and the staff of the VCDC contacted a variety of consultant companies. �We narrowed it down to a company called CSL, a consulting firm from Minneapolis who offered a high level of experience and an economically-friendly proposal. The study itself is going to cost $25,000. They, honestly of the companies that we looked at, were the most cost-effective,� said VCDC Executive Director Steve Howe. �Plus, they have the experience � they have worked on facilities all over the country.�

This consulting firm is no stranger to South Dakota or the region, having lent its expertise to planners in Watertown, Sioux Falls, Bismarck and Minot, ND, and Ames, IA.

Howe said the board of directors of the VCDC has approved funding the hiring of CSL on the condition that the Vermillion Now! Advisory Governance Council approves it, because that�s where the money is coming from.

�Whenever there is a sizeable expenditure, we contact the Vermillion Now! Advisory Governance Council and have them vote on it,� Howe said. �They are representatives of our investors and if they are comfortable with it, we feel we are safe to move forward.�

Both the VCDC Board of Directors and the Vermillion Now! Advisory Governance Council voted unanimously to provide the needed funding for CSL�s study.

The next step

Vermillion community leaders are now in a transitional phase, moving from discussing the visitor center idea among themselves to preparing for the first visit from the consultants.

�We�re going to bring them (the consultants from CSL) into the community so that they can meet with our task force, and make sure that they understand the scope of what we are trying to do,� Howe said. �Then they will be spending several days in the community, talking to all of the stakeholders, talking with the city, the university, the county, the main entities of the communities.�

He said conversations will also be held with personnel associated with local motels, caterers, and similar businesses.

�They will be doing a lot of interviewing, and then they will do a lot of research,� he said.

Recommendations from the consultants are expected in November, Howe said.

The consultants will be working from a blank slate. In other words, they have received no pre-conceived ideas from community members.

�We want it to be a conference center � mainly a place where we can hold meetings, but when we talk with them (CSL), we�re saying, �you tell us what fits here.� They are going to be looking at whether we can support conferences, university-related activities, trade shows, touring and performing events, and local arts and cultural events,� Howe said. �We just started with the idea that we need a place to hold meetings, and they�re going to determine if the community can support these other activities as well.�

Vermillion, with its proximity to Sioux Falls and Sioux City, IA � large cities with the resources to host large conventions � will likely see if it can fill a niche of a smaller scale.

�Our view is that we are looking to be an option for a lot of these municipal and regional conferences that are held in the state or region, and a lot of university-related conferences � we might be home to those as well,� Howe said.

CSL spells out, in great detail, the approach it will soon take to determine whether a conference center is feasible in Vermillion. It will first conduct a market demand analysis. The purpose of this study is to define and evaluate the local market characteristics of the Vermillion area as well as the existing event facility infrastructure, such as conference, meeting, civic and spectator/event facilities.

This analysis will be a three-step process in which Vermillion�s existing market conditions, comparable and competitive facilities will be analyzed, followed by a market survey.

Characteristics of Vermillion to be evaluated as part of this overall analysis task include inventory of hotel properties and committable rooms; existing/planned conference, event and hotel facilities in the local area; key demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and trends, such as population, disposable income, retail sales, entertainment spending, corporate base and other such indicators; and accessibility; entertainment offerings and attractions.

�They�re going to be evaluating all of the existing space that we have in town, what the square footage is, and what the seasonality of our community is,� he said. �They�re going to be studying all of those things in depth.�

The consulting firm will also perform a market supportable facility program analysis, and a study of event levels and characteristics.

The CSL staff will contact local, state and regional associations, universities, corporations, and service organizations to see if they would be interested in holding conferences and meetings in Vermillion. �They will also be talking with event organizers and booking companies to see if they would be willing to come here,� Howe said.

What may work best?

Ultimately, the consultants will use all of the data they collect to recommend the type of conference center they believe will be successful in the community.

�They will take all of the information they will gather and will say what type of facility could be supported,� Howe said. �That might be a standalone conference center, or it might be facility that has to be associated with a hotel. They are going to take the results of that survey and identify what type of facility would be appropriate, if any.

�They might come back and say �No. You can�t support a facility of any size or any scope. And we�re prepared for that answer as well,� he said.

Should the study affirm that a conference center would succeed in Vermillion, the consultants will eventually offer suggestions on the size of the facility that can be supported here, and the types of events that the community should seek.

�They will be taking a pretty well-rounded, in-depth approach to this study,� Howe said.

Should the study favor the construction of conference facility, local planners will begin exploring ways to fund its construction.

�Our initial feeling is that this will have to be a joint public and private partnership,� Howe said. �We feel that there will have to be some Vermillion tax and/or fee structure going into help pay for this. We would envision that maybe one of our hotels would be an investment partner, the city would be an investment partner and potentially individual investors or individual investor groups would be a partner in it as well.�

How it all began

Community leaders began exploring the feasibility of constructing a conference facility of some type here last year.

�We called together a group of citizens from the community to get some feedback on whether or not there is a demand for a conference center in the community. The conversations have been going on for several months,� Howe said. �We took that original meeting that we had, with 20 or 30 members of the community, and came out of that with a desire to continue the conversation with a smaller group. We believed that a smaller group would be more effective.�

That smaller group � the conference center task force � continued exploring the idea and concluded a feasibility study was needed.

�It just seemed appropriate that if we were going to ask some of our hotels, for instance, to make an investment in their properties, that we would need to do a feasibility study and show them that it was a viable idea,� he said. �The same thing with the city � if we were going to ask the city for assistance in this, then we are going to have to show that this is a viable project.�

Howe and other Vermillion citizens have visited communities in the region that are the homes to convention centers. The feedback they�ve gotten from citizens in those communities provided some valuable information about how best to approach such a project.

�In talking with those people, it became apparent that for a community our size, we are going to need some level of public assistance, whether that be implementation of a room fee like they�ve done in Sioux Falls, or the allocation of some of the bed, board and booze tax,� Howe said. �If there is a need for any sort of allocation of public funds, then we need to have a feasibility study to show the city council and the public that this is a viable project.�

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