After two years, a global pandemic, and hours of study, a group of consultants are now reporting that Tuscaloosa could house and benefit from a new convention, sports and events facility.
A 20,000-square-foot venue could attract some of the events Tuscaloosa lost in 2020, according to Chicago-based Johnson Consulting.
Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports estimates these missed opportunities equated to about 34,000 lost hotel room stays this year.
It would also help fill a gap that now exists with current facilities — the Bryant Conference Center has a total area of more than 30,000 square feet, but its largest space is just over 10,000 square feet — and larger spaces that are already active and are enshrined in the convention and sports tourism markets.
“Adding a component that is missing from our market could help reduce lost events,” said a Summary of preliminary findings by Johnson Consulting. “The recommended area could support up to 30,000 overnight stays and should be able to accommodate trade shows, sporting events, meetings and entertainment events.”
Progress was slow but thorough
Johnson Consulting was first hired by the Tuscaloosa City Council in January 2020 to lead research, data collection and market analysis efforts to determine if a new conference center or sports venue would be feasible here.
The company evaluated the Tuscaloosa market size, whether Tuscaloosa needed another convention or sports center, and if so, the size, scope and location of that facility.
Johnson Consulting’s $110,000 contract also gave the company the option of considering a large facility for conferences, events and sporting events, or smaller facilities for each function.
After being stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the globe just weeks after City Hall took over, Johnson Consulting resumed its efforts in mid-2021. City officials said the company spent months visiting venues across the area and conducting surveys with community members, including local business owners, sports groups and the University of Alabama, among others. Throughout the process, Johnson Consulting also worked closely with Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and the Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority.
In a report recently submitted to the Elevate Tuscaloosa Advisory Council Subcommittee on Culture, Arts and Tourism, the advisors said Tuscaloosa could benefit from a multipurpose hall of about 20,000 square feet or more with potential breakout spaces.
A minimum of two acres of land would be required for construction, but ideally five acres to allow for future expansion. Additionally, the consultants said construction near Tuscaloosa’s current downtown hotel cluster would likely work best.
According to Johnson, a flexible, multipurpose 20,000-square-foot facility would fill a gap in Tuscaloosa’s current market while giving the city the ability to host larger conferences, trade shows, and possibly indoor sporting events.
A venue of this size would not be compatible with large-scale basketball or volleyball tournaments, but could be ideal for celebration, dance, gymnastics and powerlifting events, the study found.
The venue could also be used to host what the consultants described as “something unique” such as:
The challenge, the advisers said, would be to break into an already saturated market for sports complexes such as Hoover’s Finley Center and Birmingham’s Crossplex.
“There are now so many indoor sports venues within our driving distance that we may have difficulty penetrating the market,” the consultant’s summary reads. “However, if we are determined, we can certainly leverage our strengths and unique offerings to generate new business.”
Long-term vision, but questions remain
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox has been pushing for a new conference center since adopting his Elevate Tuscaloosa plan in 2019.
Originally budgeted at $60 million, this “experience location” aims to improve the experience economy and attract thousands of tourists to Tuscaloosa each year.
That preliminary budget was reduced to $43 million following the announcement of the Saban Center, a new, state-of-the-art interactive learning center that will offer programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), theater and outdoor recreation what is now The Tuscaloosa News.
Now, $17 million once allocated to the experience site has been used to purchase the land, plan and design the Saban Center, and plan and build the River District Park, which is currently under construction and as an outdoor component des planned is Saban center.
Johnson Consulting’s findings indicate that there is a market gap between event sizes of 12,000 square feet and 70,000 square feet, an area that a Tuscaloosa venue could fill.
“We should focus on providing good meeting and ballroom facilities to fill the gap unserved by existing facilities,” the report’s summary reads. “Adding a component that is missing from our market could help reduce lost events. The recommended area could support up to 30,000 overnight stays and should be able to accommodate trade shows, sporting events, conventions and entertainment.”
In addition, the consultants suggested improvements to existing facilities, such as Bowers and Sokol Parks, that could help support the type of event facility they recommend.
“Rather than focusing on breaking into the very competitive indoor facility market, a better strategy is to instead focus on leveraging our existing assets,” reads the advisor’s summary. “If, for example, Sokol Park has been planned according to the general plan and a business plan has been developed, we will have a good opportunity there to find a niche in the market. Ditto for Phelps Center and Bowers Park.”
But what exactly it would cost to build, maintain and operate this new venue has yet to be determined.
To provide some understanding of this, Johnson Consulting will provide a final recommendation later this spring that will include a site analysis, capital construction analysis, demand forecasts and estimated operating costs – all of which will be considered in determining the final size, events and location recommendation .
“These ideas are not yet set in stone, but I’m excited about the potential of this project for our community and look forward to hearing Johnson’s final recommendations,” Maddox said. “The city of Tuscaloosa is constantly growing and evolving, and I believe the addition of a large event space could be of great benefit to our community.”
Reach Jason Morton at email@example.com.