Downtown convention center gets greenlit

Written on 06/25/2024
Patrick Munsey

City council passes $22 million bond issue for long-awaited project

This article is brought to you by Freedom Financial.

It literally took decades, but downtown Kokomo will get a hotel and convention center. The Kokomo Common Council took the most important step on June 24 by approving the issuance of a $22 million bond to finance the project.

The total cost of the project is not to exceed $27.5 million, with additional revenues coming from the City of Kokomo, Howard County, and the Kokomo Convention and Visitors Bureau. The project is estimated to create as many as 26 new full-time and part-time jobs, with aggregate payroll and benefits amounting to $1.3 million per year.

The conference center will feature 22,950 square feet on its first floor, an additional 9,112 square feet of breakout space on the second floor, and 22,971 square feet on its lower level, part of which will be used for the Automotive Heritage Museum. There will be room for 10 cars to be placed on display in the museum.

Within the conference center space, there will be six breakout meeting rooms and a bridal room with a private bath. The main ballroom will be 8,687 square feet, and there will be a 1,565-square foot outdoor terrace. The hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn, will feature 108 rooms.

Kirk Daniels, president of the Kokomo Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) board of directors explained that the council’s approval of a bond issue bring to a close a journey that was decades in the making.

“The first guy who said, ‘Hey, we need this,’ was Dick Russell when he was a fledgling attorney back in the early ‘80s,” said Daniels. “And he actually had a study done which said, yeah, it fits this community.

“The next attempt at it was a Coopers and Lybrand study in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. It backed up Russell’s study. In fact, there are actually five studies on it. They all say this community is ready for a downtown hotel and conference center.”

Each study detailed the finances of the project, and at every turn it was something the community could easily afford, Daniels explained. Now, with the economic development that is taking place in Kokomo and Howard County, the project is more viable than ever, he contended.

“Everything that I think is going to happen there is probably going to be even better than what we actually forecasted,” said Daniels.

Neal Patel, managing partner with SSG Hotels -- the developer of the project – said that the hotel and convention center is ready for reality.

“There's a lot to do in the next month,” said Patel. “We're working through our agreements right now, collaboratively, to make sure everything fits for every group. We have our interior exterior designs, the architectural designs. There's just non-top meetings, but everyone's all on the same page.”

Patel explained that SSG Hotels currently has 22 hotels in its portfolio, including brands like Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott. And it is building a hotel in Greenwood, which broke ground in May. While he acknowledged that the Kokomo project is more complicated due to the public investment, it is something the company can handle and turn around quickly.

“We're looking at an 18- to 20-month timeline,” said Patel. “We have excellent GCs (general contractors) who are familiar with Kokomo.”

Patel also is excited about the Kokomo project because of the features over and above the hotel component. There will be a restaurant and a bar in the facility, along with the conference center.

“I think Kokomo will enjoy the restaurant and the bar, and the conference center is obviously the centerpiece of this whole project,” said Patel. “The hotel is really just a component that's adding value. It will add a lot of tax revenues for the area, and a lot of new jobs in the area. I think it is going to be appealing.”

Sherry Matlock, manager of the CVB, explained that the conference center is designed to handle a greater variety of events than its predecessor along Ind. 931 and should be a significant draw to the community.

“Of course, the facility will be able to host social events like weddings and banquets, but I think the real focus will be larger meetings, conferences, those types of events that really will be drawn to the amount of ballroom and breakout space,” said Matlock. “Certainly, I think there will be events that local organizations and businesses will want to organize, but our main focus will be bringing in those groups from out of town to utilize it.”

The funding for the project mainly comes from tax revenue. The bond payments over the next 25 years are expected to be no more than $1.8 million per year, and the revenue will come from an innkeepers tax administered by the CVB and property taxes captured through the establishment of a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) encompassing the hotel and convention center.

Because the project has been on the books for so long, many in the community may be pessimistic about the prospects of the hotel and convention center or even the need for it. Daniels explained that Kokomo residents don’t feel the arrival of a new hotel the same way they do other developments, but developers wouldn’t take on the risk if they had doubts about their success.

“Sometimes, in Kokomo we sit back and say, ‘Why do we need all these new hotels?’” said Daniels. “We don’t see it because we don’t stay in our hotels. Looking outward, we can see who's actually trying to stay here. We're convinced that with all the activity that the new plants and people are bringing, there aren't enough rooms. People are staying in northern Indianapolis, in Logansport, even as far north as Rochester. You see evidence that everybody's benefiting right now.”

Daniels also contended that youth sports are a major driver of tourism for Kokomo, which makes the project even more attractive.

“Youth sports are huge in this community,” said Daniels. “The Visitors’ Bureau has to move ahead with this project, but we also need to move ahead with sports marketing. We need to see where we can take that at the same time, because they all feed each other.”

Daniels pointed to Championship Park as a prime example of the impact sports marketing can have. The latest report on the park, released in early 2023, showed that more than 260,000 visitors patronized the park in 2022, with more than a third of them travelling more than 100 miles. Their estimated spending in the local community was $120 million. And they occupied more than 2,000 room nights in Kokomo’s hotels.