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Evansville: A river city’s revival

Courtesy Visit Evansville CVB

It’s a tight turn as barges round a horseshoe bend on the Ohio River at Evansville, Ind. Like those coal-laden vessels, Indiana’s third-largest city is about to change course.

Evansville, population 117,000, has been out of contention for major convention business since 2009, when a deteriorating convention center hotel, the Executive Inn, was closed and then demolished to make way for an arena. The building site has remained vacant as a plan to build a smaller convention hotel on the site fell through.

Now, another deal is in the offing, with the announcement of a hotel partner expected early this month. The new hotel is expected to open in 2015.

“I’d love to see the shovels hit the ground by spring,” said Bob Warren, president of the Evansville CVB.

The hotel will be adjacent to the $127 million Ford Center arena, which opened a year ago, and across the street from the Centre, Evansville’s convention center.

The lack of an adjacent convention hotel has caused a number of conventions to dismiss the Centre and Evansville in the past several years, said Darren Stearns, general manager of the Centre.

When meeting planners learn there is no adjacent hotel, the conversation “stops there,” he said.

Groups that use the convention center have to stay three or four miles away in suburban hotels.

“Right now, we can’t attract conventions,” said Warren. “Meeting planners don’t like busing.”

Being so close to a solid deal on a new hotel has lifted the spirits of Stearns, Warren and other hospitality leaders.

“It’s been a long wait,” said Stearns. “I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Back in business
The hotel is the final piece of Evansville’s convention package. The well-kept Centre, owned by the city and managed by SMG, has a 2,571-seat auditorium, a 38,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 14,000-square-foot ballroom and a dozen small breakout rooms.

The Ford Center, with 9,600 seats for basketball and 11,000 for concerts, is home to Evansville IceMen hockey and University of Evansville men’s and women’s basketball.

Between October and April, it has 130 events booked; but even with its busy schedule, there should be availability for convocations and lectures that are often part of larger conventions. The Jehovah’s Witness District Conference used the center this summer for its 4,500-person conference in Evansville.

The arena, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified at the Silver level, is owned by the county and managed by VenuWorks.

New casino hotels downtown
The lack of a convention center hotel has not kept small meetings from the city. Downtown, on the riverfront, Casino Aztar has an executive conference center as well as two hotels: the 250-room Casino Aztar, where a guest room renovation is under way, and the boutique 97-room Le Merigot, as popular with businesspeople as it is with high rollers.

The casino complex is a dominant presence on the city’s riverfront, where a linear park with green space and walking paths links downtown to the river that abuts it.

The three-level riverboat casino and an attached entertainment and dining complex are on the riverfront. The hotels, the conference center and a 1,660-space parking garage are across Riverside Drive and are connected to the casino by a system of enclosed walkways and pedways.

Casino Aztar’s single-level conference center has two 2,300-square-foot adjoining rooms, four 608-square-foot meeting rooms and a boardroom.