Public supports Oxford conference center

Oxford StockBy Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Every speaker at Tuesday’s public forum on the Oxford Conference Center expressed support for keeping the facility open. The 9-year-old facility’s roughly $350,000 annual deficit gave rise to the hearing.

Several officials from the University of Mississippi spoke in favor of the center. Mahmoud Elsohly and Troy Smillie of the National Center for Natural Products Research said more than 200 researchers come from across the country to the university’s annual – soon to be semiannual – Botanicals Conference, which Mayor Pat Patterson called “the flagship conference” for the facility.

Smillie said the conference’s 250 to 275 attendees and their concurrent sessions overwhelm other Oxford-area facilities.

“If we can’t hold this conference at the conference center, we’d have to move it to DeSoto County or Tunica,” he said.

Kathy Knight, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management, said not only does her department hold meetings at the conference center but that it is a valuable source of experience for its students.

Linda Allgood of the North Central Mississippi Board of Realtors said the Conference Center easily accommodates the unpredictable attendance at her group’s classes and conferences, and Ole Miss Quarterback Club President Lee Meek said no other facility in Oxford could accommodate its two annual gatherings.

Several city leaders noted the use that the city and area nonprofits make of the facility.

Jon Maynard, soon to be executive director of the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation, said the facility’s conferees often constitute a ready audience for Oxford’s economic development message.

“Just because something doesn’t cash-flow doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value,” he said. “It presents us with a huge opportunity to market Oxford to the rest of the planet.”

Patterson summed up city leaders’ frustrations with the facility and the too-low ceilings, lack of truck access and other shortcomings that make it undesirable for many events.

“Past generations of this city have done great things for us … but this isn’t one of them,” Patterson said. “Do things like this have to make money? No. Do they have to be cost-effective? Yes.”

Charter Roads Hospitality, opened a Hampton Inn across from the Conference Center in August 2011 and will open a Marriott extended stay hotel next May. Attorney Carter Hitt said the company is “very interested in seeing the Conference Center continue to operate as it has. … We’re supportive of the city doing that or a third party, including ourselves, operating it.”

errol.castens@journalinc.com