Hotel project makes OSU a player in attracting conferences


CORVALLIS - After more than a decade of planning, false starts and delays, construction is beginning on a Hilton Garden Inn hotel on the Oregon State University campus that will thrust the university into the business of attracting major conferences.

When the Hilton is completed in the fall of 2003, OSU will have one of the five largest on-campus conference complexes in the country, officials say.

The construction of a "headquarter" hotel just across Western Boulevard from two major university meeting facilities - LaSells Stewart Center and the CH2M-HILL Alumni Center - is seen as the final piece of the puzzle that will help OSU attract major academic and civic conferences to Oregon.

Already nearly three-dozen conference organizers have called Melanie Fahrenbruch, OSU's director of Conferences and Special Events, about reservations.

"During the past few years we have had a handful of conferences at OSU, but the lack of a headquarter hotel really has hampered our ability to compete on a national level," Fahrenbruch said. "When the Hilton is complete, it will give OSU an on-campus conference complex as impressive as that of any university in the country."

John Hope-Johnstone, executive director of the Corvallis Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Corvallis has lost out on as many as 37 major city-wide conferences in the past four years because it lacked a headquarter hotel.

"A headquarter hotel is one that is within hopping distance of the conference facilities," he said. "When a major conference is scheduled, the board members, VIPs, guest speakers and especially the organizing staff need to be in constant contact with the conference facilities staff. They usually set up a 'war room' in the headquarter hotel from which they conduct business.

"When you look at such a hotel in combination with the amenities offered by the Corvallis community and the OSU campus, it makes a rather attractive package for conference planners," he added.

Doug Sweetland, of the Corvallis-Benton County Economic Development Partnership, said the entire community will get an economic boost from OSU's increased ability to bring events to Corvallis.

"The Hilton will really give a shot in the arm to the local business community," said Sweetland, who has been involved from the outset in helping OSU attract a hotel to campus. "A major conference will bring new business to the area, and put people into every hotel in the city.

"It will fill area restaurants and bring folks into shops, movie theaters and gas stations," he added. "The economic benefit will be considerable."

It has taken the university more than four years to wade through a series of legal challenges to reach the construction phase of the project, said Brian Thorsness, director of contracts for OSU. During that time, the original developer, Larkspur Hospitality, changed its development emphasis to concentrate solely on the Silicon Valley region of California.

A new developer with local ties stepped into the void. OSU reassigned the lease to A&A Construction of Spokane, Wash. - a group that includes Corvallis business leaders Jackson Cooper and Vern McDonald of Corvallis Hospitality. The Hotel Group, based in Edmonds, Wash., will manage the hotel; the group manages 25 hotels, many of them major franchises, along the West Coast.

"We are tremendously excited about this project because the Corvallis community stands to benefit in so many ways from having a Hilton Garden Inn on campus," Cooper said. "Living in Corvallis, it is easy to see the potential it has to help the university attract more conferences and visitors to campus - and that will give a big boost to the business community." OSU routinely hosts smaller conferences, symposia and other academic events, and once or twice a year may host a large event, such as the nationally televised "God at 2000" conference two years ago.

When its new conference complex is complete, the university should be able to attract more of the national conferences run annually by academic professional organizations. And that will provide a direct benefit for Oregon State students, said OSU President Paul Risser.

"This will give our undergraduate and graduate students more opportunities to participate in major professional conferences, significantly enriching their academic experience," Risser said.

In addition to academic conferences, Hope-Johnstone said OSU and Corvallis will be able to attract what the industry calls SMERFs - social, military, ethnic, religious and fraternal organizations.

Construction of the Hilton Garden Inn should take about a year to complete.

OSU has a formal groundbreaking ceremony scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 10:15 a.m. on the site, but the decision was made to go ahead with construction as soon as the equipment became available, Thorsness said.

"We wanted to take advantage of the good weather and get going," he pointed out. "Besides, we've waited long enough."