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Downtown Renaissance

Look around at a lot of midsize downtowns in America, and you’ll wish you owned a crane company.

A healthy economy seems to bring more of everything convention visitors look for in a city center meeting destination: new hotels with spaces to unwind, like rooftop bars and lobbies that resemble living rooms; restaurants and bars, galleries and retail stores; expanded and renovated convention centers; green spaces; and improved public transportation.

Here are five cities to watch as future convention sites.

Lexington, Kentucky

Downtown Lexington is no longer saddled with an empty city block that sat idle, stymied by a series of development stumbles. The long-awaited City Center has been built on the site and finally opened in late 2019. The center is home to two Marriott hotels, a Starbucks, a Keeneland gift shop and a Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse.

While the transformation was a long time coming, it certainly makes Lexington a more viable convention city.

And it is just one of several completed or planned projects that are enlivening its downtown. Work should begin soon on a linear park that will stretch from one end of town to the convention center. New restaurants and bars seem to open almost weekly; an empty county courthouse is now a restaurant and bar and a massive event space.

Work is progressing also on the expansion of the Lexington Convention Center. Although the project won’t wrap up until 2022, it’s already enticing larger conventions to sign on, with 100,841 square feet of exhibit space and a 25,000-square-foot ballroom among its selling points. The 400 added rooms at City Center’s hotels two blocks from the convention center, along with those at a neighboring 21C Museum Hotel, have given a big boost to downtown accommodations, supplementing two existing hotels connected to the convention center.

Palm Springs, California

Downtown Palm Springs seems to have awakened from a sultry desert slumber and shifted into development overdrive. A new retail development has opened, anchored by brands like Tommy Bahama, Free People, Kiehl’s and Johnny Was. Newly opened or planned hotels are moderate in size but big on amenities, like the Kimpton Rowan, with 153 guest rooms and the city’s only rooftop pool.

A downtown park is planned across from the Palm Springs Museum of Art; another new hotel, the 169-room Dream Hotel, with 10,000 square feet of meeting and event space, is expected to open next to the Palm Springs Convention Center in 2021. The convention center will get another new neighbor when the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians opens its new cultural center and sports arena two blocks away. The arena will be available for conventions and trade shows.

Still to come are a Virgin Hotel and the long-delayed Andaz Palm Springs Hyatt, now set to open late this year.

Grand Rapids, Michigan

If you’re looking for a hotel room, downtown Grand Rapids might be a good bet. Having the nation’s third-best economy and No. 1 job market seems to be fueling a lot of guest room growth.

This summer, a 164-room Canopy by Hilton will open as part of a downtown development that will include a nine-screen movie complex and restaurants. A 146-room Marriott Residence Inn is also slated to open this year. A 160-room Hyatt Place Grand Rapids has opened in a tower built in downtown’s entertainment district, and a 127-year-old building has become an AC Hotel by Marriott with 130 guest rooms. One of the city’s largest new hotels is a 250-room Embassy Suites that looks over the Grand River.

There’s also early talk of adding a 400-room hotel and 115,000 square feet of meeting space at DeVos Place Convention Center and restoring the Grand River’s rapids for recreational purposes.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

The biggest news in downtown Oklahoma City, meetingswise, is the opening this year of the new $288 million convention center, with 200,000 square feet of exhibit space and a 30,000-square-foot ballroom. On its heels is the arrival next year of a neighboring 17-story Omni Oklahoma City with 605 guest rooms and 78,000 square feet of its own meeting space.

Both are adjacent to the 70-acre Scissortail Park, 30 acres of which opened last fall. It has become a great place for visitors and locals to go for a walk or run and enjoy public art. Getting to and from major downtown attractions is a lot easier with the addition of a downtown streetcar, which runs six miles through the city.

Huntsville, Alabama

Downtown Huntsville, Alabama, is in pursuit of 1,300 downtown hotel rooms to support its Von Braun Center, and it is already making a lot of headway. An AC Hotel by Marriott has opened, overlooking downtown’s lake-filled Big Spring Park, putting another 120 guest rooms within a few steps of the convention center. Still to come this year is a 117-room Curio by Hilton. Next will be a 150-room Hampton Inn and Suites across the street from the Von Braun’s brand-new Mars Music Hall and rooftop bar and restaurant. Also planned are a 187-room Autograph Hotel and a 145-room Hyatt House.

Beyond its new music venue, the Von Braun’s renovation and expansion project has given the convention center another 14,000 square feet of breakout space, a new lobby and a 35,000-square-foot ballroom with a terrace.