Path to a renovated Memphis Convention Center: a bumpy beginning to a smooth landing?

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Artist’s rendering of the Main Street side of a renovated Memphis Cook Convention Center.

The Memphis Cook Convention Center is among the major magnets to bring people to Memphis. Like can happen to those traveling to the convention center,  its renovation has had a few bumps along the way as it begins the journey toward its destination.

Public projects in Memphis have a checkered past in terms of being completed on time and on budget. For example, the last expansion and renovation of the Memphis Cook Convention Center was completed in 2003, was millions over budget, a year and a half late, and resulted in several lawsuits. More recently, the Riverfront Development Corporation’s Beale Street Landing came in $16 million over the original price tag.

A proposal to largely update the look and some of the functionality of the Memphis Cook Convention Center started as a $55 million project which was to be completed in September, 2019, in time for the celebration that month of the founding of Memphis 200 years earlier. With an increase in the hotel/motel tax and using Tourism Development Zone revenue to finance it, an expanded vision for a major renovation developed with a price tag of $175 million. Architects, construction managers, and consultants were hired. Then it was learned that the proposed method of contracting for the work, a construction manager at risk, in which the manager would be responsible for any cost overruns, could not be used for the project under Tennessee law. That caused a bit of a delay in the planning as the Memphis Convention Center Board of Commissioners reworked the format for a more traditional construction contract.

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Artist’s rendering of an interior space in a renovated convention center.

Some of the key elements of the more extensive renovation included more breakout meeting rooms with higher ceilings to accommodate large screen displays, a lot more glass to provide natural lighting, the removal of the mezzanine level, new LCD lighting, an overall enhanced internal appearance, and redesigned “back of house” facilities and passageways for staff only use. A major aspect of the original $55 million concept remains, although altered somewhat, and that is covering the outside of the building with a metal skin to make it look more modern and similar to the attached Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.

Among those working to assist the convention center’s board in planning and estimating the cost were the principals of two of Memphis’ leading architectural firms in addition to the primary architects, LRK of Memphis in conjunction with the world wide convention center designer TVS of Atlanta. When the bids went out, the estimates, expressed with confidence, was that construction costs would be about $136 million and a total cost meeting the proposed budget of $175 million.

Then the bids came in. There were only two firms bidding and the lowest bid was $199 million.

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Artist’s rendering of west side of a renovated convention center.

The consultants’ primary explanation for the high bids was that there were several large projects either underway or out for bid at the same time the convention center renovation bid was solicited. That, they said, resulted in a very tight construction market and led to other companies not bidding on the project because they were either already at capacity or could be if they won contracts for other developments for which they had put in bids.

Scott Fleming, an architect consulting the convention center board says “every construction project I know of is struggling with budget. It’s a bidder’s market.”

Back to the drawing board, literally. The architects went to work to alter the plans to find cost savings. The city and convention center commissioners decided to rebid the project. They hope that the construction market will have loosened a bit and more construction firms will bid on the project, the competition possibly lowering price. It has been said that a construction project with only two bidders can increase the cost 25%. The new request for bids is expected to go out in mid September.

Last month representatives of the TVS architectural firm presented proposed cost saving changes to the renovation design. They were awaiting a cost estimate to show how much difference the changes are anticipated to make.

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Renovated and additional meeting rooms are an important aspect to the convention center’s future. Load bearing columns will remain in some rooms but the design calls for seating in the center providing a clear view to the front with walking areas provided outside of the columns.

Among the major changes: painted drywall instead of brick in several interior locations within the convention center, elimination of the aerial walkway between the Sheraton Hotel and the convention center, substituting wood laminate instead of solid wood in numerous locations, using a perforated metal instead of wood for some decorative features, changing the lighting design, including eliminating cylindrical lights which could be lowered or raised to enhance an event in the main exhibit hall, reducing the outcropping of a meeting room which will extend from the front of the building, changing the finish on the exterior, and discarding a planned large video screen sign for the west side of the building. The cost of cellular phone signal boosters is being removed from the renovation budget but is expected to be included through separate funding. In all, the design firm found more than 200 “value engineering opportunities,” meaning places where changes could save money.

Tom Marshall, one of the consulting architects, says “we are greatly pleased with the level of quality maintained” in the revamped plans. After seeing an artist’s renderings of before and after the cost cutting plans, another participant in the meeting said, “I can’t tell the difference.”

Responses to the new request for bids are due November 1, and if a bid is satisfactory it is expected to be awarded by mid November. Construction would begin shortly thereafter.

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Improving the appearance where Front Street goes under part of the convention center as well as providing modern meeting rooms on the west site is part of the plan.

The estimated cost is still unknown and the actual bids for the renovated renovation plans are, of course, unknown. What is known is that the expected completion of the project, September, 2020, is now a year later than the original target date. Although portions of the convention center will remain open during construction, the timetable change also means some other events which the convention center might have hosted will have to be redirected to other local sites, turned away completely, or if already contracted, cancelled. Convention center commissioners were told that the overall cost of lost business, including possible penalties, could reach one million dollars. Kevin Kane, President and CEO of Memphis Tourism (the Convention and Visitors Bureau recently rebranded as Memphis Tourism), says “it will be worth the pain… They’ll be talking about us like they talk about Nashville.” He was speaking of Nashville’s convention center which opened five years ago to widespread acclaim and costing more than $600 million.

 

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