April 10, 2013
By Luke Money, Signal Staff Writer

After more than three years of planning and study, Santa Clarita City Council members voted this week to keep the door open on the possibility of a stand-alone conference center, but only if the city can find some way to reduce or offset the cost of building it.

Council members voted 4-1 Tuesday night to direct city staff to seek out a partnership with a private company to develop a conference center, the costs of which could range from $40 million to $65 million, according to Wil Soholt, a senior vice president with Kosmont Companies, which developed the draft master plan for the center.

In such a partnership, a private entity could assume the costs of construction in exchange for some form of public subsidy, Soholt said.

Councilman TimBen Boydston, who was the lone City Council member to vote against the item, took issue with that option.

“I want everyone to understand how little sense this makes to build a conference center when you are trying to subsidize it,” he said Tuesday.

Boydston said he would rather “kill” the idea of a conference center outright, given its cost.

“It doesn’t make any economic sense,” Boydston said.

Other council members said Tuesday’s vote was about exploring ways that could help construct a conference center at a lower cost, not guaranteeing it will be built.

“All we’re doing is saying, ‘Let’s see what the possibilities are,’” said Councilwoman Marsha McLean. “You can’t just kill something like that.”

Councilman Frank Ferry said completely doing away with the idea of the project would be “irresponsible” and cited the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons as an example of an effective city partnership.

The city contributed $2.4 million during construction to increase the seating capacity of the Performing Arts Center. In return, the city has the option to hold community events at the venue.

“I get you don’t want any growth and you want us all to drive a horse and buggy,” Ferry told Boydston. “I get it; you’re consistent.”

On top of the building and maintenance costs for the center, the city would also have to pay to finance a center, likely through bonds, Soholt said.

The city would reap about $600,000 a year in operating income by running a conference center, Soholt said, but would likely still face a more than $2 million deficit per year while paying debt service on bonds.

The overall price tag for the project could vary based on how large the center is, where it is located and whether a parking structure needs to be constructed to serve it, according to Soholt.

After market analysis, the recommended size for a city conference center would be 55,000 square feet with a 20,000-square-foot main ballroom, according to the plan presented at Tuesday’s council meeting.

By comparison, the large banquet room of the Hyatt Regency Valencia, which serves as the city’s current conference center, is 5,684 square feet.

A 55,000-square-foot center would also require eight to 12 acres of land for construction, Soholt said.

661-287-5525 On Twitter @LukeMMoney