Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
January 22, 1999

Plans set to improve Hilton

by Anne Dolan

Under plans announced last week, Hilton Coliseum will receive improvements that meet state fire safety and federal accessibility guidelines. Women's restroom facilities will almost triple. And if the Ames City Council and Ames voters support it, 1,465 seats will be added to the arena, bringing the capacity to 15,453 for basketball games and 16,400 for concerts.

Fire safety, accessibility and restroom improvements, at a cost of $3.8 million, will be paid with money in the Hilton bond reserve and Federal Emergency Management Agency funds received after the flood of 1993. The proposed funding source for the $2.4 million seating project is a two-cent increase in the Ames hotel tax (from 5 cents to 7 cents on the dollar) for 10 years.

Vice president for external affairs Murray Blackwelder co- chairs a city/university committee that is seeking the hotel tax increase. In this Q&A, Blackwelder discusses the proposal.

Q: Why is Iowa State asking the city for money to improve a university facility?

A: I would argue we are partners with the city. Three years ago, we made the decision Iowa State wanted to play a bigger role in the convention business, both to promote Iowa State University and to boost economic growth in the Ames area. Iowa State created the conference services position and we really have become partners with the city in seeking and hosting conventions. Many of the groups that come here are about students, but some of them are not. We are bringing the Family Motor Coach Association here this summer. The economic impact on Ames will be enormous, but that group has nothing to do with students.

The Iowa State Center is the major convention business in Ames and we have to protect the viability of that facility.

Q: Some people feel Iowa State should begin charging state sales and hotel taxes to its Memorial Union and residence hall guests. Is this policy likely to change?

A: That's an issue I've been working on with hotel and motel owners since November. We're exploring that issue at Iowa State and we'll have a decision before we present our proposal to the city council Jan. 26.

Q: ISU athletic events at Hilton rarely sell out. Why does Hilton need more seats?

A: If we want to continue to compete for contemporary music events, a 16,000-seat arena is necessary. Promoters prefer the larger arenas. Des Moines and Omaha are looking at those sizes. Iowa City is in the concert business now, too. We want to stay the premier site in the state.

This proposal isn't a recent response to competition for concerts. We've been making plans for improvements to Hilton for several years. Three and a half years ago, we received our first concept plan from the sports architecture firm in Kansas City (HNTB). Their plan included more ideas than we can do, but now we're ready to carry out some of them.

Q: Why are concerts so important?

A: An economic impact study of the seven concerts held at Hilton during fiscal year '98 shows that the return to area businesses for each event was $900,000.

If we can keep the revenue stream for the concert business, we won't have to raise the rent on other Iowa State Center users or increase ticket prices for events at C.Y. Stephens. The concert business has an effect on all the other center buildings.

Q: What kind of a timeline are you anticipating for this inquiry?

A: The Hilton Expansion Committee will present our proposal to the Ames City Council at its Jan. 26 meeting. It has to go through several readings, but if the council approves it, I'm hoping we can get this on a ballot in April. We need a simple majority (50 percent plus one, of those voting) to get it passed.

Q: What happens if either the city council or the voters say no?

A: The new restrooms and the fire safety and accessibility work will begin later this year, either way. If the hotel tax increase is not approved, the seating will not be added.

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