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Hed: Oxford conference center in the works

Leadin: City awaits firm commitment from Marriott before making final deal

By Jane Hill

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Architectural plans for a conference center for the city of Oxford are in the works, according to Oxford Mayor John Leslie.

The multipurpose conference center that early estimates said would cost about $1.4 million is still in some ways only a paper proposition, though city aldermen have given their consent to “turn the architect loose” to draw up plans for the city-owned facility.

Leslie said the project is closely tied to plans to construct a Marriott hotel on the Grand Oaks subdivision and gold course being constructed in south Oxford.

The city has retained the same architect as Marriott for the design of the conference center, R.G. Polk Architects of Jackson, but will not ink a deal for the operation of the conference center until construction bids have been let on the hotel, hopefully within a few months.

“Neither project can really exist without the other,” Leslie said. “The conference center won’t work without the hotel, and the hotel won’t work without the conference center.”

The final cost of the conference center will probably be higher than early estimates, which did not include the cost of furnishing the facility, Leslie said.

Provided plans for the hotel stay on track, aldermen will dedicate funds from the city’s tourism tax to the project. A 2 percent tax on prepared food and beverages and on hotel stays are collected within the city limits. The tax was first used to fund the construction of the Oxford University Swayze Field baseball stadium on the University of Mississippi campus.

Currently, the city has about $1 million in cash reserves generated by the tax, Leslie said.

“We promised the public then that the next project we funded would be something that the entire community could use,” Leslie said. “We think this conference center is it.”

If the Marriott deal goes through, the city plans to contract with the hotel chain for the operation of the conference center. Marriott would receive 10 percent of whatever profits are made at the facility.

Leslie said the center is modeled on a similar facility run by Marriott in Florence, Ala., though on a smaller scale.

“We aren’t going to be holding any furniture markets or handle the volume of Tunica, but I think Oxford does offer a culturally rich and dignified meeting place. We’re small enough that we will make a big fuss over them.”

Rough floor plans for the facility call for two conference rooms at the front of the building, a large ballroom area that can be partitioned off in thirds and four smaller dining/meeting rooms to the rear of the facility in addition to kitchen, storage and restroom facilities.

The conference center will be able to accommodate up to 1,100 guests in a cocktail party setting, 894 in a theater seating arrangement and 594 people in a dining arrangement, Leslie said.

Local hotel and motel owners and restaurant owners have expressed support for the center because of the additional visitor traffic it will generate, he said.

University officials, hospital organizations and large companies such as Federal Express have already made inquiries as to the type of facility that will be constructed.

Several Oxford residents have expressed an interest in renting the facility for wedding receptions and other large private gatherings, he said.

“I think this will be one of the better-used facilities in the city and the beauty of the deal is that when it isn’t in use, we can just lock it up,” he said.

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