The possibility of a statewide tourism conference coming to the Rogue Valley both excites and deflates those charged with bringing visitors here.
The annual Oregon Governor's Conference on Tourism attracts more than 400 delegates, who have gathered in venues ranging from Bend to Eugene, Seaside to Portland. It was held in Salem in April and is ticketed for Sunriver in 2014.
The idea of hosting the event has been broached more than once, and as much as they would love the invasion, local visitor and convention bureau folks can only ruefully shake their heads.
For the fact is, there are no locations where groups of that size can meet and eat under the same roof, said Anne Jenkins, senior vice president of Travel Medford, the visitor and convention arm of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County.
During the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, there were 15,000 visitors in the Medford area, attending conferences, conventions and events, generating 18,000 overnight room stays, according to Travel Medford figures.
A big chunk of that comes from athletics-related events, but the number could climb substantially if there were a larger site to book conventions.
"Medford is outgrowing the 10,000 square feet we have available at the Red Lion or Ramada," said Jenkins, who has been involved in visitor and convention operations here for 15 years. Jenkins said the largest indoor convention the city can accommodate would be one with about 300 people.
The Great Recession slowed convention trade, but with the economy improving and organizations routinely convening across the state and country, a convention center, with adjoining hotel and food service, is back in the conversation in Medford.
"We have the requests, but you can't hold the size of meetings that would like to come to our city," Jenkins said. "We go after conventions we can hold and, on average, we turn down one or two a month from people who have sent (proposal requests)."
While Jenkins knows what a 30,000-square-foot convention center, with an exhibit hall and meeting rooms, might look like, at this point any likely locations are unknown, as is the potential cost. The location probably would surface after a recommendation by a consultant, she said, while the cost probably would be determined by a hotel and food service company.
Medford and its adjacent urban area have three times the population of the late 1960s, when today's primary convention centers opened. Former mayor, state legislator and present City Councilor Al Densmore recalls the great leap forward when two hotels with convention centers opened in 1968. Before that, there was the Medford Armory and attendees were shuttled to and from their motels.
Medford had just over 30,000 residents but benefitted greatly when the downtown Red Lion Hotel and Holiday Inn (now the Ramada Inn) opened. Holiday Inn's 10,000-square-foot convention center was far from downtown, but close to the airport and the north freeway exit.
"It was a fairly big deal at the time," Densmore said. "It was the first fairly good-sized lodging facility with fairly good-sized meeting rooms. Without that, we had to depend on multiple venues to attract larger groups or statewide organizations. But as the rest of the landscape has grown, it now looks fairly small."
Convention centers have sprung up at a rapid pace nationally during the past two decades. Despite the recession, an industry source reported that since 2005, 44 new convention spaces were either constructed or planned.
Salem opened a $32.8 million, 30,000-square-foot convention center in 2005. A $42 million, 130,000-square-foot center opened in Provo, Utah, last year.
The Salem Convention Center's conferences in the past year included a gathering of more than 700 local government and municipal employees from around Oregon, more than 800 theater students from the Oregon Chapter of the International Thespian Society, 850 people from the Oregon District United Pentecostal Church and 400 delegates of the Masons.
Such events typically span three days, likely producing at least two overnight stays at local hotels, along with associated meals and other purchases.
During its quarter-century run, the Medford Urban Renewal Agency didn't seriously consider a convention center as one of its projects.
Don Burt, the director of MURA between 1987 and 2006, said there was discussion, but not much more, about a convention center.
"Urban renewal could only do what was in the plan," Burt said.
Aside from that, the biggest hurdle was placement.
"It was quite political, everyone wanted it on their property," he said. "Before it went anywhere, the pros and cons had to be looked at for each place."
An artist's rendering was produced to show how a convention center at the Red Lion property could be tied via a footbridge to the site that now holds the Lithia headquarters and The Commons area.
"I was more interested in getting everyone on board first," Burt said. "One, do you want it, and two, where?"
Apparently, there wasn't much traction, because a convention center never became part of MURA's plan.
The Red Lion location on Riverside Avenue — which is for sale by the Spokane-based hospitality chain — is preferable in some ways because it is close to downtown and parking. The biggest strike against it going forward, however, is new regulations that would require additional setbacks from Bear Creek. That would reduce buildable space and limit the number of rooms.
A variety of downtown venues could be leveled or renovated, and there are significant numbers of motel rooms surrounding both freeway exits. There is room around the airport or near the "Big X" northwest of the Rogue Valley Mall, and The Expo could be a candidate.
"As the area grows, it's going to be more and more difficult to find a spot that's also centrally located," said Mark Wisnovsky, a local vintner who relies heavily on tourism and a former county commissioner candidate.
Wisnovsky sees a convention center as a natural extension of what has been developed at the city's U.S. Cellular Fields sports park, which has proven to be a magnet for out-of-town teams.
But he doesn't see it as something that will spring forth from the public sector.
"It's one of those things that's difficult to push through from a government perspective," Wisnovsky said. "It really needs to be more organic. If a large-enough private enterprise determines there is a need for it, then it's probably the time for the chamber and various tourism agencies and local governments to get behind it."
Wisnovsky said he considers the Red Lion site an obvious front-runner and suggested Bear Creek be included as an asset in the discussion.
"We might have to take a leap of faith, or at least an educated leap of faith after doing some research," Wisnovsky said. "You have to ask what the need is and not just put up a box and think everyone is going to come. We are talking about a huge investment with a long-term payback and that's difficult for private industry to do.
"Any long-term plan should have Bear Creek involved — it's such an underutilized resource. Yet, the Red Lion has its back to it, instead of its front, and Hawthorne Park its back to it."
Curt Johnson, a commercial real estate agent with Oregon Opportunities, has been involved with past convention center discussions.
"In a perfect world, I would have something along the lines of redeveloping the Red Lion," Johnson said. "But redevelopments are very difficult to maneuver when you are dealing with existing infrastructure, rights of way and those type of things. It's a lot easier to take a greenfield development like out at the Big X."
Jenkins said convention demands and tastes have changed over the years and, in some quarters, the thought is transportation costs will continue to hurt the industry over the long term.
During the recession, Jenkins said, "People were saying they were glad we didn't have one. They tend to be black holes, depending on how well they are run. Did we survive without one? Yes. Can we survive without one right now? Absolutely."
The changes in the 15 years she's been with the agency are reflected in the types of travelers and the companies targeting the Rogue Valley.
"The needs have changed because the town is growing," Jenkins said. "There is a need for a facility that can house everything in one area. I don't know if a convention center would go downtown or elsewhere, but it will take a collaboration of public and private (interests) who want to see it happen. What we need is that all-in-one inclusive piece where groups can grow their events and bring larger conventions to the area."
Correction: A typographical error in the subhead on this story has been corrected.