CARMEL, Ind. -- Visitors are already flocking to Carmel to catch a show at The Palladium or an artsy street fair in the Arts & Design District.
Why not try a small convention center?
That's a question the city has begun to explore as it launches a three-month study to determine the feasibility of adding yet another major attraction to the redevelopment of its downtown area.
Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard has hired an industry expert and consultant to carry out the study in hopes of answering questions such as when, if and how big such a facility might be.
"If we built one, it could bring a tremendous amount of business to Carmel," said Brainard. "It would help our economic development, bring more and ultimately help us keep our residential tax rates low."
But there is an immediate concern among some in the local business community: Carmel already has three large banquet and meeting centers and a major hotel with similar offerings.
Not to mention other sites scattered around Hamilton County.
"We need to be thoughtful about the meeting industry," said Brenda Myers, executive director of the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau, who added that given the demand, she is not surprised Carmel is thinking about it.
"The market is probably ripe for something like this now," she said. "I am pleased that the mayor has hired an expert to determine what our capacity is and what size and scope such a project should be."
From the get-go, Brainard appears to be trying to allay some of those concerns, especially from owners and operators of The Ritz Charles, The Fountains and Oak Hill Mansion, all in Carmel.
"This has been in our City Center plan since 1997," he said. "And we don't want to do something that hurts existing providers of space and existing hotels.
"We want to attract business that is not served."
Particularly, he said, Carmel might become a destination place for regional, statewide or national niche conventions that are looking for more than a banquet center but less than a major convention center.
"We also don't want to be in competition with Downtown Indianapolis," he said.
A suburban convention center would be nothing new in America. According to the Trade Show Executive website, there are 124 small convention centers (less than 100,000 square feet) and 120 mid-size centers (100,000 to 350,000 square feet).
Experts at the Urban Land Institute have reported that places like the Cobb Galleria in suburban Atlanta and Overland Park Convention Center outside Kansas City are natural outgrowths of other recent suburban attractions, such as performing arts centers -- designed to cater to a growing population that wants to stay and play closer to home.
For event planners, the attraction to suburban locations includes less expensive hotel rooms, free parking and avoiding downtown traffic issues.
Carmel's expert consultant is Will Greiner, an industry veteran who ran the Sharonville Convention Center on the north side of Cincinnati for 20 years. His contract is for "up to $30,000," according to city officials.
"We really base what we do on the demand side of the industry, not the supply side," Greiner said. "We work hard to dig down and find out what the demand is for this kind of space."
Over the next three months, Greiner will survey not just Central Indiana but the entire state, each market from Fort Wayne to Merrillville, Evansville to Lawrenceburg, to see what facilities are already doing and what kinds of events are happening.
The study will span the event possibilities, from state conventions to regional conventions, corporate events to public shows and small, elite private events.
"We study our competitors," Greiner said, "but we also focus on event planners. We try to contact up to a thousand planners to interview them and find out what kinds of events they are planning and what requirements they have for facilities."
Jon Jenkins, a Fishers-based promoter of large arts and crafts events, welcomed the news.
He just hosted the Indie Arts & Vintage show at the Fountains in Carmel. The event was well attended, which caused the parking lot to fill up fast. Some attending the event parked a few blocks south and crossed busy Carmel Drive.
The Fountains offers 25,000 square feet. Jenkins said Carmel is likely to "shoot for something a little bigger" -- at least twice that size, he said.
Promoters, he said, are "pro-space" and always looking for bigger and better places. "Give us more places where we can do things," he said. "We like to have options."
Greiner began his Veridical, LLC, consulting business shortly after retiring from Sharonville. He said he has advised many cities, and he has advised some not to proceed.
Key to success for suburban convention centers is to find the right mix of events that are too big to be staged at local hotels and event locations but too small for a large convention center.
During his two decades at Sharonville, he said he worked with more than 10,000 events and drew more than 4 million people.
"I see that similar possibility for Carmel," he said.
In the end, his study will determine the demand that is out there and recommend the type and size of the facility Carmel should consider. Additionally, he will give city officials an idea of how much such a facility will cost.
Some estimates range from $20 to $25 million, depending on the size. Brainard said he wants to explore many options to finance such a facility, including a public-private partnership, the model used to build much of the City Center project.
And he already has a location in mind: A slice of land just north of the Palladium in a largely industrial area that is poised to be redeveloped into the Midtown Plan during the next several years. The vision includes wrapping a mix of business and residential growth, along with the convention center and parking garages, around the Monon Greenway corridor.
"This has been in the plans since day one," he said. "We are finally moving ahead to see if it makes sense in the next few years to try and pull the people to the table to get this done."
Call Star reporter Dan McFeely at (317) 444-6253.