Convention center board pushes for hotel

Authority hires local attorney to ‘look under all the rocks’ to see if it can own lodging

The Blair County Convention Center Authority is hiring an Altoona attorney for more research into how it can develop a hotel on convention center grounds.

Authority Solicitor Brendan Moran concluded last year that, under the state’s Municipal Authorities Act, the convention center authority cannot own or manage a hotel because it would compete with private business.

But if something can be changed to avoid that roadblock, then perhaps attorney Patrick Fanelli, who previously worked for the authority, can come up with some direction, authority Chairman Richard Karcher said.

The authority has long been interested in having an additional hotel next to the convention center as a way to attract more conferences and meetings. While the neighboring Courtyard by Marriott provides some housing for convention center guests, it’s not always enough.

“I want (Fanelli) to look under all the rocks and see if there’s a way we can do what we want to do,” Karcher said.

His rate will be $135 an hour, to a maximum of $2,000.

Karcher contacted Fanelli before the authority’s Wednesday meeting, where members voted 6-to-2 in favor of hiring Fanelli to do the research. Fanelli’s findings will be forwarded to Blair County solicitor Nathan Karn for review.

Board members acknowledged that the options could include revising documents that the county created in 1996 to establish the authority to build and manage a convention center. That led to a discussion as to whether current county commissioners would or wouldn’t support such changes.

Commissioner Ted Beam Jr., who regularly attends authority meetings on behalf of the commissioners, said that no matter what Fanelli offers, commissioners will turn to Karn for his opinion.

“If Nathan says no, the county commissioners won’t do it,” Beam said.

Authority member Donna Gority, a retired county commissioner, asked if Karn had been asked to weigh in.

Beam said Karn agrees with Moran’s conclusion that, based on the municipal authorities act, the authority cannot own or manage a hotel.

Moran said he’s confident of that opinion, based on court rulings that have gone against government-created authorities entering into operations that compete with private business.

But authority member Jamie Van Buren countered that the Blair County Convention Center is already in competition with other convention centers, and that all have lodging. Without lodging, Van Buren said, a convention center wouldn’t exist.

Karcher read a definition of convention center and it included lodging.

Moran said the authority’s founding document refers only to a convention center.

Gority, who was on the commissioners board that created the convention center authority, said she thought those involved in the effort contemplated having private hotels on the site.

The Courtyard by Marriott is a privately-owned hotel, located on ground that the convention center authority leased for 99 years.

“We don’t operate it and we didn’t build it,” Moran said.

Despite repeated efforts, the authority has been unable to attract another hotel chain or a developer willing to set up a similar arrangement.

Meanwhile, hotels have been built elsewhere in the Altoona area, including one in Convention Center Commons, a development across the road from the convention center.

Convention Center CEO Barry Kumpf said his records indicate that between 2015 and 2017, there were 69 groups that backed away from using the convention center because of the lack of attached lodging.

Based on the size of their groups and their meeting schedules, that’s a loss of 10,115 lodging nights and $1.6 million in revenue, Kumpf said.

“Our intention has always been to grow business,” Kumpf said. “And we’re doing that with our hands tied behind our backs.”

Authority member Sean Albright said he understands the situation and how the convention center could benefit from having another hotel. But Albright acknowledged Beam’s input and proposed a motion that the authority hire Fanelli, and that Fanelli’s research be forwarded to Karn for review.

So the authority is asking Fanelli to find out: “What can be changed to do what we want to do,” authority member Anna Moulin Caporuscio said.

“I’d like to dig deeper to find out our options,” Karcher said.

Karcher, Albright, Van Buren and Caporuscio and authority members Matt Stuckey and Pat Miles voted in favor of the motion.

Gority and authority Vice Chairman Daniel Taddei voted no.

“I think its a waste of money,” Gority said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.