Conference center plan faces setback, but still viable

Columbus’ plans to develop a downtown conference center and hotel had a significant setback last week when the city announced that Columbus and local private sector partner Sprague Hotel Developers had parted ways on the project. But that doesn’t mean the project should not move forward.

It would be a vast understatement to say a lot has changed since the parties set sail on a joint public-private partnership to develop the project. This was well more than three years ago, before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19.

It was before the cost of everything had skyrocketed and supply chains suffered from countless broken and weakened links.

We had not heard much talk about the proposed conference center since the pandemic eased, but at the same time, the nearby Taylor apartment development — another downtown public-private partnership — got underway and is now getting close to completion.

Also, the city and Columbus Regional Health just last month dropped a master plan for roughly 700 acres of development west of downtown, south of State Road 46 and west of State Road 11.

Columbus-based Sprague hasn’t commented on the parting of the ways on the conference center project, and the city broke the news stressing that it was on mutually agreed terms. Things just were not going to work out. This happens with some frequency in development deals involving public and private partnerships, even when there are not historic pandemics and inflation to contend with.

The city remains optimistic about the project, and Mayor Jim Lienhoop said last week the city already has been in contact with other potential project developers. “We’ve reached out to a few others and they’ve expressed some interest in the program, and so we’ll simply see where those conversations go,” he said.

“We just weren’t able to get together on the math,” Lienhoop said. “Costing has changed significantly during the pandemic, and now that we’re on the other side of the pandemic, what we’re finding is that it was really difficult for us to make the math work in terms of the projected costs and what the city’s participation in that would be.”

It’s instructive to look at what the city has going for it that could attract another developer for a hotel/conference center. In addition to the ongoing construction at The Taylor and the big plans for the CRH property, the NexusPark site is buzzing with activity that will create more than 500,000 square feet of multipurpose space, including a fieldhouse and healthcare facilities.

“The city remains optimistic about the future of the hotel/conference center,” the city’s press release said. “This optimism is supported by recent hotelier industry statistics indicating a positive growth outlook and our community’s ability to support this type of project. The city’s goal continues to be supporting the evolution of downtown by promoting projects and partnerships that bring people to our core and provide enhanced quality of life opportunities to our residents.”

As a growing, vibrant city and a regional magnet, Columbus can support a downtown hotel and convention center. We urge the city to use this opportunity to cast a broad net for potential development partners.