Oxford seeks conference center proposals

Oxford StockBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – City officials voted this week to advertise a Request for Proposals regarding management of the Oxford Conference Center.

While they consider options for ending the facility’s $350,000-a-year deficit, reservations for events will be taken only through Dec. 31.

Although negotiations had already begun with Charter Roads LLC, the ownership group for one existing hotel and one hotel under construction across the street from the conference center, it was only this week that it became clear that the city could legally contract with an outside entity to run the facility.

“We had a meeting (Monday) with our bond attorneys … and determined we could move forward with an RFP,” said Mayor Pat Patterson. “We’re going to request proposals and see where we stand.”

City Attorney Pope Mallette said the use of tax-free bonds to fund the conference center and the attached National Guard Readiness Center had been in question.

“You can hire somebody to provide operation and management of it,” Mallette said. “That means they can use the employees that they’d like to use, but we the facility remains ours – we don’t lease it to them. Those are the general parameters to keep our bonds safe.”

Alderman Jay Hughes said the RFP does not obligate the city.

“We’ve not made a decision that this is what is going to happen,” he said. “In our duty to be good stewards, we’re trying to solicit ideas.”

Conference Center Manager Hollis Green recommended against imposing the bookings deadline.

To customers who wish to reserve for 2015, he said, “We’re going to have to say, ‘We can’t book you,’ and they’re going to go elsewhere. If this board comes back later and decides on the status quo, this board needs to understand that the first quarter and the second quarter of next fiscal year are heavily impacted, and the problems that led us to this discussion are going to be more extreme.”

Carter Hitt, an attorney representing Charter Roads, made a similar argument.

“Our concern would be just that – managing an entity that half the bookings are gone, and we’re hamstrung from the beginning, and there’s no way to make that work,” he said.

While the consensus among city officials seems to be that making the conference center closer to a break-even entity is the ideal, all ideas from outside management to repurposing to outright closure have been on the table.

“It’s no secret that the schools are interested (in the building),” Patterson said. “It may not be a conference center.”

errol.castens@journalinc.com