”I’m scared for Toledo to have something that’s going to be a loser like SeaGate Centre. I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of something that’s positive and strong and successful.”
Bold words from Toledo Storm owner and president Barry Soskin when sharing his thoughts on the building of a Downtown sports arena; bold enough to draw the attention of James Donnelly, SeaGate Convention Centre president and chief executive officer, and a rebuttal.
A loser? Maybe when Donnelly took over 15 years ago when SeaGate lost about $2 million a year and hosted 40 events. Things were so bad, Donnelly said, the center went three months without any activity.
That was late 1990 and early 1991. Since then, Donnelly said he and his staff have turned SeaGate into an economic winner. The center hosted more than 160 events last year and generated about $40 million in economic worth to Lucas County, Donnelly said. SeaGate has more than a $25,000 positive cash flow for 2006, he said, and should wind up with a $140,000 operating surplus by year’s end.
”We’re not a loser, we’re a winner for the community,” Donnelly said. ”We’re an economic magnet.”
Soskin stood by his statement but defended it by saying the negative perception he had of SeaGate came from information relayed to him during his first year of operation with the Storm. He said he has not looked at the center’s recent financial statements to form an educated opinion about its current status.
Should the public have a negative view of the 19-year-old center, Donnelly said, it is likely because voters failed to approve the project in the 1980s. SeaGate is run by a nonprofit corporation and only receives $150,000 annually from the county for capital equipment.
”I think people’s perception is, ‘They built this without voter approval so that the government entities would throw tons of money into it,’” Donnelly said. ”Not true.”
SeaGate’s success cannot be measured by how much money it makes because any capital generated through its operation must be put back into the facility, he said.
”The convention center was never built to be a profit center,” he said. ”Our sole role in life is to be an economic magnet to draw new dollars into the economy through visitors, through conventioneers, through trade show delegates spending money.
”There’s no convention center in the country that makes direct dollars.”
Though it has 75,000 square feet of exhibit space and 23 meeting rooms, SeaGate is limited by its lack of room, Donnelly said. The problem forces him to turn away larger conventions because the building cannot accommodate the space needs of such events. SeaGate is the only convention center in Ohio without a dedicated ballroom.
”We’re landlocked right now,” Donnelly said. ”We can’t grow the physical plan.”
There is hope, Donnelly said, should a new sports arena be built Downtown across from the convention center. Such a building would allow SeaGate to move some of its larger events to the adjacent facility and free up space for other business. The addition of a Downtown arena would allow SeaGate to create the 1,000-person ballroom it needs without sacrificing exhibit space.
”We only have time and space to sell,” Donnelly said. ”We need visual space. We gain that through the arena.”
Space is not SeaGate’s only problem, said Downtown restaurateur Ed Beczynski, who last year publicly criticized the center’s management for asking neighboring restaurants to extend business hours during conventions without promoting them inside the facility.
”They were bringing all these conventioneers into Toledo, but they weren’t promoting the restaurants Downtown,” Beczynski said. ”These people wouldn’t have had a clue on where to go. I had a problem with that.”
The criticism apparently worked. SeaGate’s staff is now making an effort to contact Downtown vendors and is working to promote them, Beczynski said.
”There is a lot more communication now with the convention center and myself,” he said. ”They call and they’re trying to get more involved.”
Part of the challenge SeaGate faces is a result of its geographic location. The center is in direct competition with similar facilities throughout Ohio and in parts of Michigan and Indiana. The Dayton Convention Center, which Donnelly said is slightly smaller than SeaGate, had about twice the number of events and attendance in 2005 than SeaGate.
An October 2005 report issued by the auditing firm KPMG stated the addition of a 10,000-seat arena would better position SeaGate to attract and host special events that it is unable to accommodate due to space constraints.
Pete Gerken, Lucas County commissioner, said he believes SeaGate has continued to improve in recent years. Though it is saddled by space constraints and an ”outdated” hotel facility, Gerken said, it would fit perfectly with a Downtown sports arena.
”Everybody wins in this,” Gerken said. ”It will be a great marriage between the two.”
Though a new arena cannot come soon enough for SeaGate, Donnelly said attracting conventions that bring in patrons with a higher propensity to spend money while in Toledo would continue to build upon the success SeaGate has already encountered.
”It’s only going to get better,” he said, ”especially with an arena.”