A tourism improvement district that would finance a $100 million expansion of Springfield's downtown convention center cleared a major hurdle recently, with the proposed district – and a future surcharge on room rates – receiving majority support from the city's hotels.
"It's a big step," said state Rep. Mike Coffey, R-Springfield, a downtown restaurant owner who chairs the municipally operated convention center's board. "There's still a lot of work to be done."
The Sangamon County Board voted unanimously Nov. 14 to hold a Dec. 19 public hearing on the proposed Sangamon County Convention Center Tourism District and take a final vote to create the district at that time.
The board was able to schedule the public hearing because owners and representatives of the 19 hotels signing petitions supporting the concept met the statutory requirement that their properties pay more than 50% of the state share of hotel/motel taxes in the proposed district.
Coffey said it's important to form the district by the end of December to comply with legislation passed by the Illinois General Assembly in May and signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker in June.
The measure, tucked inside a larger bill and sponsored by Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, modified the February law that allowed communities to create tourism improvement districts. The latest tweak gave Sangamon County the unique opportunity to form such a district with a lifespan of 20 years rather than the regular five years.
The longer lifespan would help the district, proposed to cover all of Sangamon County, to arrange for long-term financing that would fund a 120,000-square-foot expansion of the Bank of Springfield Center.
Such a project, which could begin as soon as next year on county-owned land now used for a parking lot immediately south of the BOS Center, would almost double the 44-year-old center's current capacity.
"More importantly, an expansion will allow the BOS Center to shine for what it was intended in 1979 – as an entertainment, expo and concert venue," said Scott Dahl, director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The project would be at least partially financed with a to-be-determined assessment fee of up to 5% of the room rate.
Backers of the proposed district say the expansion, discussed for years, would allow the center to attract bigger conventions and offer more entertainment, filling hotel rooms and benefiting the hospitality industry throughout the area. All but three of the hotels in Sangamon County are in Springfield.
Among hotels that went on record supporting creation of the district were the Wyndham Springfield City Centre, Ramada by Wyndham Springfield North on Northfield Drive, Statehouse Inn & Conference Center and Hilton Garden Inn on South Dirksen Parkway.
It wasn't possible to reach the overseas owners of the downtown President Abraham Lincoln DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, adjacent to the BOS Center, to sign a petition before the Nov. 14 County Board meeting, Coffey said.
Not all hotels in Springfield submitted petitions, but the only hotel that specifically refused to sign was the Crowne Plaza Springfield, according to County Board chairperson Andy Van Meter.
According to Van Meter, the out-of-town owners of the Crowne Plaza, 3000 S. Dirksen Parkway, said they don't think the hotel would benefit from larger conventions in Springfield.
Representatives of the Crowne Plaza didn't respond to a request for comment.
The district would be guided by a board of directors that would include lodging business owners.
Van Meter, a Springfield Republican, said there is "very broad support for this project" from local governmental leaders and the business community in Sangamon County.
"This project has so much good will surrounding it," he said, "but the devil's in the details, and we have to see if we can get it to work."
Coffey agreed but said the project is "a no-brainer for Springfield."
The Springfield Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority Board has decided to pay the California-based legal consulting firm Civitas $65,000 to $70,000 to guide the formation of the tourism district. And the board is expected to pay $65,000 for a feasibility study to further refine and scope of the expansion and help determine the precise amount of surcharge to be tacked onto hotel room bills.
County leaders could seek state funding to offset some of the costs, Coffey said.
Construction on the project could begin in 2024 at the earliest, Van Meter said. Preliminary drawings done for the SMEAA Board included a skywalk over East Adams Street to connect the main BOS Center with the expansion.
"We're in the very beginning, investigation stage of all of this," Van Meter said.