Critics say downtown Monterey needs expanded conference center as tourism lags.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Downtown Monterey is hurting, and there is plenty of blame to go around: The economy, the city center’s lackluster main drag, and a city government with too many demands on its threadbare budget to do much about it.
One solution, say some in the business community: Expand the 30-year-old Monterey Conference Center. Transform the faded old facility into a sleek 21st-century economic engine that lures the sort of corporate confabs that fill hotel rooms and fatten city coffers with hotel and sales tax revenues.
“The primary concern is [that] the conference center is outdated,” says Mike Mosebach, president of the Monterey County Property Owners Association. “We don’t have a facility that has marketability. It’s limited in its ability to serve large groups. We’re losing the battle.”
Conference center use declined from 2008 to 2009 – it was used 72 percent of the year in 2008 compared to 60 percent the following year.
Sales Manager Deborah Josue says she has to turn away groups that require more space.
Mosebach wants the city-owned center privatized. City officials counter that most of its operations are already contracted out. And he has a suggestion for city officials who say there’s no money for expansion: Sell city property to finance it.
In addition to parkland and rights of way, the city owns some land that it leases, notably the Trader Joe’s property on Munras Avenue.
“If I’m looking at it as a business, and my business needed capital to run, I’d do what I needed to do,” Mosebach contends.
He’s not alone in his dissatisfaction.
Downtown Monterey is abuzz with grievances over the recent tourism drought. Some business people suggest the conference center is poorly managed, citing the loss of the TED conference, which brought leading thinkers to Monterey for a decade and abandoned the city for Long Beach in 2009.
“RIGHT NOW, FOLK ARE FRIGHTENED AND FRUSTRATED. THEY’RE LOOKING FOR PEOPLE TO BLAME.”
A couple of them sought answers by officially requesting correspondence between a TED organizer and Monterey Conference Center General Manager Dan Concepcion. The letters reveal that TED had as many differences over costs with the Monterey Marriott, which provided meals, as it did with the city.
Marriott General Manager Rene Boskoff didn’t return calls for comment.
“We did everything in our ability to accommodate them – they just wanted more space,” Concepcion says.
Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer notes that TED gave the city a parting gift of $10,000, not the gesture of a group that went away mad.
“Right now, folk are frightened and frustrated,” Meurer says. “They’re looking for people to blame.”
He says he thinks a conference center revamp, not necessarily an all-out expansion, is in order immediately.
Recently appointed Monterey County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau head John Reyes says the priority should be to fix downtown first before embarking on conference center expansion. Conventioneers, he says, are drawn to vibrant shopping and entertainment venues.
Still, Meurer will ask the City Council to approve a study of conference center options, one of several undertaken in recent years.
Mosebach says city officials would be wise to note upcoming mayoral and council elections in November.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if associations like ours put forward our desired candidates,” he says. “It’s that strong.”