At a meeting on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, Kingston City Council voted to explore the possibility of a privately owned and operated conference centre in the City’s downtown core, as part of a multi-use redevelopment of Block 4. Prior to the meeting, councillors received a report from City staff, which recommended a Request for Information (RFI) “to gauge market interest and assess the potential for a privately owned and operated conference centre,” to be located in the empty parking lot across from the Leon’s Centre.
According to the staff report, Block 4 guidelines issued in 2014 call for a “multi-use redevelopment” of the space, including “a restaurant, hotel, residential, ground floor commercial spaces and other complementary uses.” The site would potentially accommodate a residential development “with height of up to 18 storeys.”
While a downtown conference centre has long been discussed at the municipal level, it wasn’t until a 2022 feasibility study ordered by Council that a private model became a realistic alternative to public spending on the development. By supporting a privately built and operated conference centre, the City would not need to draw public funds away from other important priorities, such as “road repairs, servicing upgrades, affordable housing and a potential aquatic centre.”
However, the report does not come without some form of public spending, with the proposed RFI including a provision which would see the City contribute up to $110,000 per year for five years, from the Municipal Accommodation Tax, to further support the development. To allow a private company to build on the site, the RFI would also see the Block 4 property — which was appraised for over $8 million in 2019 — sold to a private company for $1.
Before approving the staff recommendations, councillors heard from a number of delegations, which included representatives from Kingston’s tourism and hospitality sectors, as well as other members of the business community. Karen Cross, CEO of the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favour of building a convention centre in the city’s downtown core.
“Given the increasing interest of Kingston as a large conference destination, we have a significant opportunity to increase our overall economic impact for our entire city,” Cross said.
Cross was joined at the podium by several Chamber members, including Brent Neely, owner of DigiGraphics, who suggested that a downtown conference centre could be a boon for businesses like his: “More conferences with larger attendances will give businesses like ours the chance to increase our output, meaning exposure, increased work, and added jobs.”
In terms of what a major conference centre in the heart of the city’s downtown could mean for other businesses in the area, Marijo Cuerrier, Executive Director of the Downtown Kingston Business Improvement Area (BIA), noted that conferences could bring greater foot traffic to small businesses, especially during the BIA’s off-peak “shoulder” seasons.
“Our businesses experience a 61 per cent decrease, in general, in pedestrian counts from July to January. An average day in July saw approximately 3,683 pedestrians, while an average day in January dropped to 1,473. This past March, which is in the shoulder season, the count was at 1,859 per day, 50 per cent lower… than in July,” Currier remarked. “The decision to build a conference centre — that’s going to, at the very minimum, increase pedestrian traffic in the downtown core in the shoulder season — [It] seems like a simple decision.”
Aara Macauley of Kingston WritersFest noted that a conference centre could provide the perfect venue for her to book more special events, such as author appearances. “We’re very limited right now in terms of what our options are, and that means… turning down an author that might bring 350 people [in] because we know we can’t afford to rent out the Grand Theatre and have it look empty… It’s an absolutely beautiful building, but it’s not in our capacity as a not-for-profit to bring those events in, whereas a conference centre would allow us to do so.”
Councillors also had the opportunity to speak to the 2022 feasibility study. Matthew Klas, Managing Director of business management consulting firm HLT Advisory Inc., answered questions. Portsmouth District Councillor Don Amos challenged the ability of Kingston to draw in large conventions, given the city’s limited rail and air service options. “For us to draw in a national convention would be very problematic… I think we’re comparing apples to oranges because what [the study] is referencing are cities that do have airports, that are drawing in national entities, [whereas] we don’t have that capability,” said Amos.
Klas responded, “We did not project a national convention load going through this building… It’s provincial, [and] there are one to two national conventions a year, which are events that generally we see in jurisdictions with [other] limiting factors that have specific reasons to go to that destination. Meeting planners told us… there’s an appetite for those groups to go somewhere other than Niagara or Collingwood or Muskoka.”
When it eventually came time to debate the recommendations, several councillors had questions for City staff surrounding issues like parking and increased traffic. In response to a question about traffic studies, the City’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Lanie Hurdle noted that the staff report “is not a decision to go ahead and move to construction or sell the land.”
“What we’re asking Council to do,” Hurdle said, “is issue an [RFI], a non-binding one, that would basically explore the possibility with the private sector [and ask] whether or not the proposal we have in mind is feasible.”
Kingscourt Rideau District Councillor Brandon Tozzo asked whether staff “have a sense” of what the private sector thinks of the idea, to which CAO Hurdle replied, “Based on all the research and the experts that we’ve worked with, they’ve never been exposed to a project that includes a conference centre within such a larger development… What we’re really proposing is outside the box. [We’re] trying to be creative in our approach here.”
“In terms of the proposals that we will receive, I am not sure,” Hurdle went on. “I know we’re going to try to test the market outside of Kingston. [The consultants] we’ll be working actually [have] connections far beyond Kingston, so that will help us to reach out to a larger market.”
Councillor Tozzo then spoke in favour of developing the project with significant involvement from the private sector. “There’s no harm in getting more evidence and getting more information and seeing where the market is. I do support this, [but] my support really does depend on the private sector doing most of the legwork with this. We’re not in an environment where we can contribute a ton from the municipality; we just have [more important] priorities.”
Pittsburgh District Councillor Ryan Boehme noted that a conference centre could further assist struggling downtown businesses: “Downtown Kingston is a gem, but it has also been really hard hit over the last couple of years. Whenever it is under threat, everybody is going to [try] to find a way out of that, to ensure that it maintains its vibrancy. An investment, even if it’s just researching this conference centre… is really an investment in our downtown.”
In terms of how the RFI will work, and how the City will proceed once submissions are received, Hurdle noted a Request for Proposal [RFP] would likely be issued following the RFI process.
“Typically, what we would do is receive the [RFIs], review them, identify areas where we might want to further advance conversations, and then we would issue an RFP following that,” said the CAO. As for who the City expects to respond to the RFI, Hurdle said it will likely be companies who specialize in “a combination of commercial and residential [properties].”
Not all councillors were in favour of the recommendations; Meadowbrook-Strathcona District’s Jeff McLaren noted that investments in housing would yield greater economic benefits.
“If you spend money, of course you’re going to get some economic benefit. The point is to get the best economic benefit… If we’re going to spend money to try and develop the economy, housing is much more important,” McLaren said.
In response, Mayor Bryan Paterson argued that the councillor wasn’t looking at the “bigger picture.”
“The conference centre drives traffic that then, in turn, supports the hotels, the small businesses, the restaurants, the employment… which then feeds into the housing, which then creates a multiplied economic impact,” suggested Paterson.
Once the debate wrapped up, the recommendation was carried by a vote of 12-1. With Council having approved the recommendations from staff, the City will now issue an RFI, which will include the following principles:
- A multi-use redevelopment of the Block 4 site, based on 2014 guidelines which include a restaurant, hotel, residential, ground floor commercial spaces and other complementary uses;
- The inclusion of a 52,000 square foot conference centre space, which will be privately owned;
- The inclusion of a minimum of 169 public parking spaces;
- Retention, restoration, and/or adaptative re-use of the heritage buildings at 19-23 Queen Street;
- City contribution of the Block 4 property for $1.
According to CAO Hurdle, staff should be able to return to Council by early winter with the next steps for the project.
Members of the public can view the full agenda from the meeting on the City of Kingston’s City Council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.