Ernest N. Morial Convention Center will renovate oldest portion of the building

Posted on: May 26 2011 | Posted in: Latest News
Hall A renovated to space more suited for corporate meetings, along with other items...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune By Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune The Times-Picayune

The board of directors of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center - New Orleans gave the go ahead Wednesday for architects to move forward with plans to renovate the oldest portion of the riverfront facility.

The board approved a request to move from the initial design phase to the "construction document" phase of the renovation plan. Board members also agreed to expand the scope of the project and increase its projected cost.

After Wednesday's vote, the convention center has tentatively assigned a $42 million budget to its plan to transform Hall A into a space more suited for corporate meetings. The plan also includes remodeling the entrance at Julia Street and installing a heating system in Halls A, B and C, which together make up Phase I of the center.

Officials said four years ago, as they scrapped plans to build a fourth addition to the meeting hall, that they would turn attention to renovating portions of the nearly three decades old Phase I. That portion of the building was first used as the Great Hall of the 1984 World's Fair and housed its first convention in January 1985. It has not been renovated since, said Bob Johnson, the building's general manager.

"It hasn't been touched since then because we've been in expansion mode," Johnson said.

But expansions came to a halt about four years ago as the convention business became more competitive nationwide.

Tourism industry officials said they hope revamping Hall A of the convention center will attract more of the lucrative corporate meeting group market. That segment of the convention market desires gathering spaces comparable to those found in high-end hotels, not large exhibition halls.

Though Johnson declined to provide detailed plans of the expansion because it is still in the design stage, theproposal calls for making the center's nondescript main entrance, at Convention Center Blvd. and Julia Street, more inviting.

"We're building an iconic front door as opposed to looking like you're entering the side door to a warehouse," Johnson said.

A heating system will also be added to the 327,251-square-foot space. Heating had not previously been a concern because of the city's moderate climate in winter and the relatively few meetings held at the center in the coldest months. But as the convention center begins to try to expand its booking calendar to include January, it became a necessity.

"This past year we had several groups here in the dead of winter and had serious complaints," board chairman Melvin Rodrigue said.

Both the heating system and the front entrance renovation are additions to the center's original plan, which had a tentative price tag of $22 million.

In other news, the center's board also gave the staff permission to begin negotiating with Centerplate, a Connecticut food and beverage service company that likely will replace Aramark at the center. Philadelphia-based Aramark has provided food and beverage for the facility since it opened, Johnson said. The company's current contract expires in mid-July.

Johnson said the center decided to shop around for another provider last year as part of an effort to reevaluate all of its service contracts. The center heard presentations from five prospective companies, including Aramark, before deciding to move forward with Centerplate.

If negotiations go well, Johnson said, the board will be asked to approve a contract with the company at next month's meeting.

According to its website, Centerplate provides food and beverage service at stadiums, arenas and meeting halls across the country, including the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans Arena and convention centers in Dallas and New York.

Jaquetta White can be reached at jwhite@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3494.