OUR VIEW: Running blind into a convention hotel deal

Robinson Callen Development’s proposal for a long-awaited convention hotel in Jackson just may be the “dream come true” that many local officials say it is.

But like most dreams, this one is unfolding in a chaotic fashion and offering up more than a few unanswered questions.

First, why is the $60 million deal moving at the speed of light with no public vetting and absolutely no attempt to see how Tampa-based Robinson Callen’s offer would compare with proposals from other convention hotel developers?

Does Robinson Callen have credible market research to show it can achieve the reported 70 percent occupancy that would be necessary to keep the developer from dipping into a $9 million loan fund the deal specifies the city maintain? If any hotel in the Jackson Central Business District achieved 70 percent occupancy in recent years, a bust of the hotel’s general manager would have gone immediately into the Hospitality Industry Hall of Fame. Since that hasn’t happened we can assume that averaging a 70 percent room fill-up remains as elusive as ever in the CBD.

Is Robinson Callen penny wise (seeking to save $3 million or more) and pound foolish by planning surface parking rather than a genuine parking garage? Tell us, in all sincerity, can Jackson be an appealing convention destination without offering a convenient and secure parking structure?

Could higher-than-expected vacancy rates force Robinson Callen to start discounting rooms at rates that diminish the rates other hotels in the Central Business District can charge? As a result, could we see other CBD hotels go the way of the abandoned Edison-Walthall on East Capitol Street?

Why did members of the Jackson Redevelopment Authority’s Board of Trustees vote to execute the development deal with Robinson Callen without actually having the deal in front of them? What happened to trust but verify?

Why won’t the JRA let the public see the development deal?

The last question is especially discomfiting. If this is the dream deal city officials say it is, why are the details still secret?

We’re told by JRA Executive Director Willie Mott that more lawyering must be done to fix loose ends in the development agreement. This, of course, returns us to our earlier question of why this deal is moving so quickly. Why did it get an official JRA vote if the deal is not in required legal form?

The Mississippi Business Journal submitted an Open Records request on June 27. We’ve been asking the JRA to cite the Mississippi statute under which it is refusing public examination of the development deal.

This is one question to which we do have the answer, but it did not come from the Jackson Redevelopment Authority: Mississippi law does not allow public agencies to withhold details on deals that have been voted on and approved in an open session.

A convention hotel can be a wonderful and valuable addition to the CBD. The business district sorely needs the dollars the hotel could generate through its envisioned role of helping the 3-year-old Jackson Convention Center Complex reach its potential for bookings of conventions and meetings.

A project this hugely important need not be undertaken at the speed of light. Nor should it be done without shining plenty of light on it ahead of time.

 

 

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