Convention Center Case Study: A Sense Of Place

Following a major renovation and expansion, Duke Energy Center enhances the Cincinnati skyline.
Following a major renovation and expansion, Duke Energy Center enhances the Cincinnati skyline.

Convention Center Case Study: A Sense Of Place

Convention Center Case Study: A Sense Of Place

By Anne Cosgrove
Published in the September 2006 issue of Facility Executive

A convention center is part of a city’s landscape and can affect the character of the location in many ways. Whether or not the facility enhances the experiences of visitors depends on what the building and its staff have to offer. In Cincinnati, OH, the newly renovated and expanded Duke Energy Center is considered a state-of-the-art asset for the city it calls home.

On the surface, the center has literally transformed the skyline. Along its western facade, the word “Cincinnati” is spelled out with strategically positioned metal panels that are 50′ high.

This iconic construction makes the convention center hard to miss. And when viewed from the side, this creation takes on the appearance of an abstract sculpture.

The exterior signage represents an overall scheme to reinforce a sense of place for people who visit the center. Says Mark McKillip, project director for the City of Cincinnati, “We challenged the architects to give people a sense that they are in a facility that is different from any other convention center in the world. We are located in a beautiful river valley surrounded by green hills, and the center itself is in a compact and fairly dense downtown core. The design team capitalized on the views and developed a river theme in designing the building.”

Throughout the convention center, carpet in swirling shades of green and blue was used to evoke awareness of the nearby Ohio River, while the walls outside the facility’s 37 meeting rooms are painted an orange hue—a reference to the historic brick buildings nestled along the river. “The architects did a marvelous job of capturing that sense of Cincinnati,” remarks McKillip.

The First Renovation

Originally erected in 1967, the former Cincinnati Convention Center occupied 330,000 square feet on a city block. This facility served as the venue for numerous local and regional events for nearly two decades, and in the mid-1980s, the city expanded the center in order to stay competitive.

McKillip managed that renovation, which increased the center to 575,000 square feet in 1987. The renovation resulted in the city attracting more attention and larger events; however, by the mid-1990s, the increasingly competitive nature of the convention industry once again led the city to take a look at what it had to offer.

“The convention center had a lot of repeat business, but some groups would outgrow our facility after a few years,” explains McKillip. “We also wanted to develop a center that could more easily accommodate multiple events simultaneously.”

McKillip, who has worked for the city for 31 years, was involved in the 1995 assessment of a second expansion. “There was an ambitious proposal to enlarge the center by expanding it over a freeway. It represented a $400 million project, and it could not be funded successfully,” he recalls.

The project went by the wayside until there was renewed interest in 2000. “The Mayor’s convention task force ordered a study conducted,” explains McKillip. The task force focused on outlining the specific aims of the renovation.

To achieve this, the city hired Convention, Sports & Leisure International of Minneapolis, MN to conduct a feasibility study analyzing the goals and how to achieve them. The task force then analyzed multiple funding scenarios. “This resulted in the proposal of a financing strategy focused primarily on increasing the hotel tax, both on the city and county levels,” explains McKillip. In addition to these increases, estimated to generate $1.8 million annually, the city committed to a $1 million annual contribution for 30 years.

Several corporate contributions added to the funding. Cinergy Corporation, which merged into Duke Energy in 2005, provided $9 million, for which the company received naming rights.

Program Outlined

Once funding sources were determined and the project was given the green light, the city focused on outlining the specific aims of the convention center’s renovation.

“The resulting program essentially had four components,” explains McKillip. “We wanted to expand exhibit hall space to 200,000 square feet, an increase of 40,000 square feet; we needed to renovate all the existing meeting rooms to include state-of-the-art finishes and technologies; we wanted to create a 40,000 square foot grand ballroom; and we needed to improve back of house functionalities.” At the conclusion of the project, the facility would occupy 750,000 square feet.

With a budget of $145 million, McKillip knew project costs would need to be diligently monitored in order to achieve the objectives put forth. In addition, the convention center would remain operational throughout construction. To achieve both goals, McKillip foresaw the need for extreme cooperation on the project and decided to hire the design and construction teams at the same point in the project timeline.

Bringing the architects, the construction manager, and a program manager on board all at once represented a new approach for McKillip, but he thought it was important to create a strong team from the outset. “Our local architect helped us to select the design architect,” explains McKillip. “And those parties were involved in selecting the construction manager. This was somewhat unusual from how project teams are normally put together, but I found it reinforced the team concept.”

Making It Work

Along with upgrading building systems and technology amenities, another primary focus was to create public spaces that would accommodate increased attendance and facilitate improved circulation throughout the building. The existing convention center was three stories, with the exhibit hall space on the first floor, meeting rooms on the second floor, and a 30,000 square foot ballroom on the third floor.

The ceiling in the grand ballroom is adorned with metal fabrics, which also cascade down the walls. PHOTO: J. MILES WOLF

“The convention center is located in the core of downtown, so it is vertically oriented,” explains McKillip. “It is a dense, compact facility compared to most other buildings with equivalent square footage.”

To give the facility an open, airy appearance, the architects designed a multi-level main concourse area to serve as a spatial link between the exhibit hall, meeting rooms, and ballrooms. Ample windows would bring the city inside visually by affording views of downtown Cincinnati, and, beyond that, the Ohio River Valley.

One challenge encountered early on involved the new grand ballroom slated for the third floor (adjacent to the existing ballroom). McKillip explains, “The initial concept proposed in the planning study had the new ballroom crossing over an avenue on the western side with the footprint of the building ‘landing’ on the other side of the avenue.”

That plan had been approved but was taken off the drawing board when a major funding provider withdrew its commitment. This represented a significant budget decrease, and the team needed to create an alternative design. In the revision, the architects preserved aesthetic interest by designing the ballroom to cantilever 50′ out over the avenue. “That was a very creative approach,” recalls McKillip. Underneath the cantilever, a two-story blank facade of the building was an ideal canvas on which to place the iconic “Cincinnati” sign that now graces the city skyline.

Please Pardon Our Appearance

In tandem with keeping in the budget, McKillip and the rest of the team performed their duties while the convention center remained operational. Previously scheduled events were kept on the roster, and McKillip notes the facility even added several local events. In all, 265 events were held at the convention center during this time.

Blue and green hues were used in many areas to evoke the nearby Ohio River. PHOTO: J. MILES WOLF

“We had to plan the construction schedule almost the same way we were designing the building,” says McKillip. “And we needed to design the building in a way that it could be built in phases that worked around the booked events.” These circumstances meant the schedule contained more than a dozen interim completion dates.

“We’re proud to say that we did not lose any business,” says McKillip. “We built temporary construction walls that were finished on the public side. Sometimes we had quiet hours when we wouldn’t work; other times we were working overnight. There were a handful of times when noise caused a problem, but we had walkie-talkies to communicate with each other, and within minutes the work would cease.”

On Time, Under Budget

The onus to keep construction on time and on budget meant the process of awarding contracts needed to be streamlined. “In all, we had 36 contracts for the construction trades and 46 purchase order contracts,” says McKillip. “We formed a ‘bid-award task force’ comprised of myself, the deputy manager, the city purchasing department, and the construction manager. In most cases, we had about 60 days to complete the entire process; normally that process takes three to five months.”

McKillip points to this purchasing approach and the way the project team was hired as two primary reasons the project came in about $10 million under budget. “In terms of the bids, we were very fortunate that the sum came in some $15 million under budget,” he says. “We did have some change orders, as one would expect for a project of this complexity, but we were able to cover those costs, add in several items to make the building more efficient or attractive, and still finish under budget.”

Though not done under a change order, one of the more significant alterations was an upgrade to the entire building structure to meet current seismic building codes. Cincinnati is located on an earthquake zone that is only second in the U.S. to the San Andreas fault in California.

To mark the project completion, a celebration was held in the new grand ballroom. The rock group, Rusted Root, performed a free concert for a crowd of close to 3,000 people. The improved acoustical quality on the ballroom level was put to the test during this event, since the center was simultaneously hosting an executive banquet in the adjacent junior ballroom (which had been downsized to 18,000 square feet). The service area—created by taking space from the existing ballroom—separated the two function spaces and served to block out the noise in each of the spaces.

McKillip notes that the project specs did not require special acoustical materials. However, the design firm, LMN Architects, had a working knowledge of acoustical properties, which obviously benefited the project’s outcome.

Running The Show

In the spring of 2006, the City of Cincinnati hired Global Spectrum to manage the daily operations of the building. Richard Booth, general manager of the new Duke Energy Center, arrived at the facility in May to coordinate the transition from city management to his firm.

A multi-level concourse was designed to facilitate movement between various function spaces. PHOTO: J. MILES WOLF

“Mark and his team did a wonderful job of building the new facility,” says Booth. “The architecture is very well done, and I’ve received many positive comments about its overall appearance. Also, we had several city employees stay on to help us with operations in respect to HVAC and other building systems.”

Booth notes that, behind the scenes, upgraded building systems enable his staff to meet client needs quickly and effectively. For instance, a security camera can be positioned in a room specifically to monitor inventory being stored for an event. From the facility’s central command post, staff can watch the space.

Other highlights include the ability to turn off individual sensor points in the fire system when trying to determine the cause of false alarms. “We don’t turn the point completely off,” Booth explains. “Rather, the annunciator is turned off, and we can then watch the area around the point for possible causes. We had an issue with a heat detector in an area where dishes are cleaned. The alarm kept going off, and we were able to turn off the point there until we could solve the problem.”

Booth also uses the building automation system to monitor energy usage. This is especially helpful for the meeting rooms where occupants have access to lighting and temperature controls.

“Our event managers are physically out in the spaces, but we can also monitor the usage from our computers,” says Booth. “We haven’t reached the point where we track usage in individual rooms over time, but I want to get to that point.”

With a plethora of amenities and improved functionality, the Duke Energy Center has renewed its position as a contender in the convention industry. With pleasing amenities and streamlined services, the facility is poised to provide world-class service.

This article was based on interviews with Booth ([email protected]) and McKillip ([email protected]).


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