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City discusses reopening of convention center

The city of Roswell is eyeing January for a reopening of the Roswell Convention Center for events. City officials said Thursday that hotel occupancy rates must reach about 75% before the taxes and fees will pay for the center’s operating costs. (Juno Ogle Photo)

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The Roswell Convention Center will not open for events until the city reaches about 75% occupancy rate in its local hotels, but it — along with the hotels — could receive a financial boost from the American Recovery Act of 2021, city officials said Thursday.

The convention center is funded by the 5% lodgers’ tax and a fee of $2.50 per hotel room per day. Hotel occupancies averaged around 47% last year, not enough to generate the funds needed for the center’s operations, Juanita Jennings, public affairs director for the city, said at Thursday’s meeting of the city council’s Finance Committee.

With many booked events canceled due to the state’s public health order throughout 2020 and into 2021, the city closed the convention center for events in April. It continues to be used for city council and committee meetings.

Jennings said she will present the city council with a strategic plan for reopening the convention center in July. She said ideally, hiring and training of staff would begin in the fall with a full opening in January.

The city would operate the center itself for a year before seeking a contractor to run it. That’s due in part to the city’s participation in the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Strategic Events Recovery Readiness Initiative, a pilot program to help the state’s cultural events make a comeback from the pandemic.

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“They recognize that meetings and conventions are a significant part of our business, especially down here in Roswell,” Jennings said. “I believe that’s why we were were selected to have that support from them because our economic injury was so severe with meetings and conventions.”

City Manager Joe Neeb said the city will also use that year to re-evaluate how it wants the convention center to be run.

Committee member Jacob Roebuck said he was concerned it could be difficult to recruit a manager or other staff when people knew the jobs might go away in a year, but Neeb said the staff could either be hired by a contracted firm or the city could provide cross-training so they could move to other jobs in the city.

The center could get a financial boost from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden last month. The city is expected to receive about $11 million, Neeb said.

He said it will be about two months before the city knows more details about how it will receive the funds, but it is believed it will be distributed by the state government with no additional restrictions added. The funds are to be used for the recovery of services that were most affected by the pandemic, such as tourism and quality of life.

“My understanding is there’s language within that that says the feds want the dollars to get to every community, every county in the way they intend it to be,” Neeb said. The state might be able to add requirements on reporting the use of the funds, but cannot add requirements on how it can be used, Neeb said.

He presented a draft list of possible uses for the funds, including $2 million to support the convention center and hotels.

“One of the thoughts that we are working through is grants to our hotels as well, in order to help them get back to normal. We want them fully operational, too, because they’re the funding source for this facility,” Neeb said.

The funds would pay for six months of debt service for the convention center — around $278,000 based on the current fiscal year budget — and an equivalent amount in grants to hotels, according to the list. Grants might also be provided to hotels as an incentive for them to offer lower rates for a period of time or for capital improvements.

Other possible beneficiaries of the Rescue Act funds Neeb presented included residents behind on utility bills, a hangar expansion project at the Roswell Air Center, the city’s parks and a program to offer homeless people work that was formerly done by people sentenced to community service.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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