On Tuesday, May 2, 2023, Kingston City Council will receive an update on a proposed downtown conference centre, with staff recommending the City explore opportunities for a privately owned and operated venue located next to the Leon’s Centre. A report circulating in advance of Tuesday’s meeting calls on councillors to issue a request for information (RFI) “to gauge market interest and assess the potential for a privately owned and operated conference centre.”
If approved, the RFI would seek out private sector proposals for a conference centre located at Block 4, the vacant lot next to downtown Kingston’s Leon’s Centre. According to the report, guidelines for the site 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 “residential units with height of up to 18 storeys.”
In terms of the conference centre itself, the RFI calls for a 52,000-square-foot space which would be privately owned and operated. The recommendations come from a feasibility study that was ordered by City Council back in early 2022, which indicated that such a facility could accommodate up to 1,000 delegates.
While the feasibility study included a number of options for Council to consider, such as the use of public money to finance the project, staff are recommending an approach which seeks to “maximize City-owned assets” to encourage involvement from the private sector. 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.”
The report goes on to add that such an approach is “unusual,” as conference centres often have some sort of government involvement: “City staff are trying to minimize direct financial impact on the City while providing supports to facilitate the construction and operation of [the conference centre].” In terms of support from upper levels of government, the report notes that “staff and partners do not have information that would indicate there being potential provincial or federal funding available to support a conference centre.”
A conference centre in the downtown core has long been a subject of discussion at the municipal level, with proponents viewing the development as a missing piece in Kingston’s tourism and hospitality sector. In 2013, a report prepared for the City and Kingston Economic Development Corporation (KEDCO), identified a “mixed-use, hospitality-oriented project” for Block 4. However, it wasn’t until another study was conducted in 2020 that the City began to consider a dedicated conference centre for the space.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the City and St. Lawrence College were investigating options for a downtown campus located at Block 4, with a 2020 feasibility study noting that a conference centre could further support the City’s partnership with the college. However, since the pandemic, St. Lawrence College has indicated to the City that it is no longer exploring a potential downtown campus.
In late 2021, a report commissioned by Kingston Accommodation Partners (KAP) noted that Kingston could benefit from a post-pandemic surge in Canadian meetings and conferences, “once adequate meeting space with an adjoining hotel is added to its inventory.” In February of 2022, Kingston City Council directed staff to consider a conference centre as “permitted use within the development of Block 4.”
A further feasibility study took place throughout 2022, which has been incorporated into the staff report being presented to Council on Tuesday night. According to staff, the conference space is expected to cost between $33 million and $41 million, “based on 2023 construction costs.” The report goes on to add that, based on a privately owned and operated model, the conference centre is expected to run at a deficit of $175,000 during its first year, which could drop to $110,000 during subsequent years.
While the private model is meant to limit public spending on the project, the report recommends that Council, in order to mitigate the operating deficits incurred by the conference centre owners, direct $110,000 per year from the Municipal Accommodation Tax toward the project for a period of up to five years. Staff are also recommending a public parking contribution for the conference centre, to replace the 169 spaces currently located at Block 4.
The report notes that it costs approximately $40,000 per parking stall, meaning the City would need to spend $6.7 million to replace all 169 spots. “The City currently has $18.6M in its Parking Reserve Fund which can be utilized to support the construction of public parking stalls.”
Regarding the heritage buildings currently located at 19-23 Queen Street, the RFI also notes that the redevelopment of Block 4 would need to include the “retention, restoration, and/or adaptive re-use” of the buildings.
Should Council approve the staff recommendation, an RFI will be issued in partnership with N. Barry Lyon Consultants Limited. City staff will then be expected to report back to Council at a later date with next steps, “once proposals have been evaluated.” At the same time, staff will continue to lobby upper levels of government for additional funding for the project.
The staff report will be presented to Council at a meeting on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, at 7 p.m. inside Council Chambers. The meeting will be open to the public and can also be streamed online through the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.