Local Traffic, Tribe Key To Event Center Project Success

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Calling the project a "destination," the co-president of the company that wants to develop the Payson Event Center outlined the concept to a mostly receptive audience Monday evening.

"We do not look at this as a hotel site, although there is a hotel there; we don't look at it as a conference center site, although there's a conference center there," Bruce Berres told a packed room of about 200 people at Payson Town Hall. "We look at it as a destination."

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Attending a function at the Payson Event Center during the heat of the summer can be a less-than-pleasant experience. The $21 million proposal from HSG would include a roof for the facility.

The $21 million proposal to develop the Payson Event Center, the only one the town has received to date, includes a new amphitheater, conference center and hotel plus a cover and other improvements to the current rodeo facility.

According to Berres, who is co-president of Hospitality Support Group (HSG), the company that submitted the $21 million proposal, the project will not be successful unless it attracts local clientele.

"We believe very strongly that a destination has to have just as much community support as it needs out-of-town group support," he said.

Attracting locals

Berres, who built Rustler's Roost and was one of the founders of the Pointe resorts in the Valley, said the restaurant must attract a local clientele, especially in the first few years of operation while group business is being built.

"At the Pointes, we ran 11 freestanding restaurants, and 50 percent of our revenue was food and beverage," he said. "And of that, more than 50 percent was local food and beverage. We appealed to the local marketplace, and this project is the same complement."

The two-level restaurant will have a western theme.

"We're going to call the restaurant 1884," Berres said. "That's the first year of the rodeo. If you think about 1884, it says exactly what we want it to say about the restaurant -- a western-themed steakhouse, hopefully with sawdust on the floor and live western music."

Payson's heritage will be incorporated into the restaurant theme.

"The restaurant has to say something about Payson," Berres said. "It has to have a historical portion focus in on Payson, and as you walk in there you get the flavor of the town and the history of the town."

The restaurant will be competitively priced.

"It'll be a place that is not Ruth's Chris Steakhouse (an upscale a la carte chain eatery)," Berres said. "It's less formal, but with excellent food and service."

The ultimate key to the success of the complex is group business, and Berres believes the new facility will be a big hit among group planners.

Group business

"Make no mistake, a hotel of this size really has to target group business to be successful on a year-round basis," he said, "and when it's all said and done, this will be the largest meeting facility in this portion of the state.

"It'll be able to handle 500 people for a general session. It'll be able to handle those same 500 people for a meal, either in the restaurant or on the roof of the grand ballroom. It can handle smaller groups.

"Generally, the associations around the state like to rotate from place to place. So there will be a Tucson meeting, a Flagstaff meeting, a Prescott meeting, and now there can be a Payson meeting."

Mic Feneck, general manager of the Prescott Resort -- a similar project built and operated by HSG and partner Grace Hospitality Group, echoed Berres.

"Fifty to 60 percent of our business is conference business, and they all ask us the same thing," Feneck said. "‘Do you have any other hotels that can handle us?' and we say, ‘No.' They like to move around, so we lose them to Sedona, to Tucson."

Conference center

The conference center HSG wants to build is larger than its Prescott counterpart.

"Their ballroom is a little bit smaller -- 6,000 square feet in the grand ballroom," Berres said. "We're targeting about 7,000 square feet in a configuration that is expandable.

"There will be about 2,000 square feet of support meeting space -- smaller rooms, and a courtyard atmosphere out in front as the gathering spot -- the pre-function space with fountains," he said.

The conference center also can host local events, including high school proms, large church services at Easter and Christmas, small dinners from 10 people to 300 or 400, and steak fries of virtually any size.

According to Berres, the 150-room hotel will be comfortable, but not elegant, and will be priced about $10-15 above the highest room rate in Payson.

"In the ratings business, I would say they are going to be around three stars, with mostly double queen beds to handle families and multiple occupancy," Berres said. "They will be well done, but not the fanciest rooms."

One unique feature the developer does plan to include is a configuration that allows guests to watch a flat screen television from the bathroom.

Site improvements

The town will be asked to help with improvements, including "proper sewer and water," that will have to be made to the 36-acre site.

"In our opinion, we felt you had to look at the whole site as a single destination," Berres said. "In order to do that, you have to bring the whole site uniformly up to whatever the standard is of the hotel project. That means, we feel strongly, that you have to start from front to back and improve the parking area, and the appearance of the whole lot."

HSG has targeted the current rodeo facility for substantial upgrades.

"The arena needs to get covered, because if it's going to be a support to the hotel then we have to know it's available on a year-round basis regardless of weather conditions," Berres said.

HSG also plans to add permanent rest room facilities and a snack bar.

"We want to create a function area that is unlimited in the number of different uses," Berres said. "You could have new car shows in there, team roping and team penning events, and all that goes to help fill the hotel."

While the town will continue to operate the rodeo facility as well as the new amphitheater, the two entities will work together.

"Obviously a western restaurant supports western functions, and western functions support the western restaurant," Berres said. "It's the perfect marriage."

Tribe's role critical

Another entity that is critical to the project's success is the Tonto Apache Tribe.

"We're going to approach the tribal community and sell them on the idea of coming in as an equity participant," Berres said. "Our approach is very simply, it's a business proposition. Unless you call it a casino destination, you're not going to convince the feasibility people that (the project will succeed). You can't just say, ‘Oh, it's across the street.' They really have to come in as a partner in that process."

But not only the casino stands to gain business. The complex should be good for the entire town.

"We're going to do everything we can to keep them in house as long as we can," Feneck said, "but when they come to a town like Payson, they're going to want to get out and check out the town and spend their money."

Up to 200 new jobs

The vast majority of the 170 to 200 employees needed to staff the complex will be local residents, Feneck said.

"We will probably bring in a couple of key personnel, but we would get almost all of the staff locally," he said.

Once the council signs on to the project, financing will be pursued.

"We have to work with the council and lay everything on the table, and if the goal is to create the project, we have to figure out how we can pay for the project," Berres said. "We're targeting traditional equity and debt service and we're targeting partners who can bring those things to the table."

The council will consider signing a memo of understanding with HSG at a special meeting Tuesday, Sept. 14. A time has not yet been set.

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