JONESBORO — The earth had already been turned by the time officials broke ground on the Red Wolf Convention Center and Embassy Suites Hotel project at Arkansas State University on Thursday.
After close to three years of financial and political challenges — and grappling with the presence of a competing project — the city welcomed the ceremonial start of construction, though work has actually been underway for two months.
The $58 million project, slated for completion in July or August of 2019, will include a 203-room Embassy Suites by Hilton and an attached Houlihan's restaurant, while also serving as a living laboratory for Arkansas State's hospitality management program. O'Reilly Hospitality Management (OHM) of Springfield, Missouri, will manage the facility.
"Construction continues apace and we're looking forward to the opening very soon," Chancellor Kelly Damphousse said as heavy machinery prowled the site behind him.
Before taking up ceremonial hard hats and shovels and flashing "Red Wolves up" signs, A-State and city representatives joined OHM CEO and founder Tim O'Reilly to celebrate the project and look to its completion.
"Long term it's in the best interests of Jonesboro," said Jerry Morgan, chairman of the Jonesboro A&P Commission.
The seven story facility will feature 40,000-SF of convention space and employ around 200 people full or part time, O'Reilly said. He had backed the ASU hospitality management program from the start and said he was hoping it would provide a pipeline for employees to his company.
"The partnership with Arkansas State, that's the exciting part of this," O'Reilly said. "And the ability to start the hospitality program."
O'Reilly estimated the convention center's net space would hold about 1,200 seated people and the hotel could house 500-600 for multi-day events.
An A-State College of Business and Arkansas Economic Development Commission analysis projected an economic impact of $44 million from the completed project, plus $1.1 million in state and local taxes.
Springfield's Butler Rosenbury & Partners Inc., designed the facility, and Little Rock's Clark Contractors LLC is the general contractor. The construction phase was projected to create 550 jobs with an economic impact of $64 million.
O'Reilly said his company would have to go through the process of obtaining a liquor license for the restaurant and predicted it would take a couple years for Jonesboro to crack the state's convention center rotation — which frequently includes Little Rock, Hot Springs and northwest Arkansas — to start drawing statewide events.
"They really need to see it built," O'Reilly said of the state associations the city is hoping to attract. He added that a convention center becomes established and really begins to thrive in its third year.
The Other One
"We've had ups and downs and challenges," ASU System President Chuck Welch said, but he added that convention center supporters had always believed the project would be "transformative" for the region.
The ups and downs included a competing project, Northern Arkansas Hotel and Convention Center (NAHCC). There were concerns about Jonesboro's ability to support two centers and proponents were divided over the projects.
The center and attached Hyatt Hotel were to be located at the confluence of Interstate 555 and Caraway road, and groundwork was begun early last year.
"I know they had a great group and a good plan, but I didn't think two convention centers would have worked," O'Reilly said.
Mayor Harold Perrin had backed the NAHCC project and the A&P Commission voted 3-2 to provide $300,000, beginning with a $75,000 installment, while rejecting contract requests from O'Reilly Hospitality Management.
The NAHCC project ran aground when liens were placed on the property after contractors and suppliers complained they weren't being paid. NAHCC CEO Charles Keller returned $71,000 of the A&P's installment payment ($4,000 was already spent on promotion) and promised the liens would be legally resolved and the project would resume, but it has not restarted.
The A&P Commission then threw its support behind OHM, inking a 10-year agreement that gives up a capped $2.5 million in hotel tax rebates to the on-campus project. O'Reilly said free rent in the first couple of years and no property tax, thanks to the center's role in the academic community, were deal sweeteners.
The Delta Regional Authority also renewed an investment pledge of $404,983.
For its part, OHM agreed to seek city approval to keep the project moving, though there was some dispute over whether the land was actually under city authority.
O'Reilly, whose company owns 25 hotels and restaurants, praised his team, which includes 19 family members, for persevering.
"It's tough to finally strike a deal and make it work," he said. "But the persistence and dedication of all people involved has been fantastic."
Perrin said there were no lingering hard feelings from his support for NAHCC and that he simply wanted what was best for Jonesboro. Lining up behind OHM, whose project ultimately had the best chance of success, was the proper and pragmatic thing to do, Perrin said.
"We may not all agree on each issue … but at the end you'll see us all come together and do the right thing for Jonesboro and northeast Arkansas," Perrin said.
While the earth moving machines steadily beeped backup warnings Thursday, officials agreed it was good to finally be moving forward.
"I grew up here," Welch said. "I can't imagine something like this happening in my hometown."