$80 million improvement plan for Century Center unveiled

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - An $80 million expansion plan was unveiled Wednesday for South Bend’s Century Center.

The plan calls for a doubling of the amount of convention space and building an eight-story, 200-room hotel on the grounds.

The Century Center is now 42 years old. Members of the Century Center Board of Managers were basically told that the proposed improvements represent the cost of remaining competitive and relevant in the convention business.

“If we want to be a convention center city or not is what this amounts to,” South Bend Executive Director of Venues Jeff Jarnecke said. “Eighty-four million dollars is a big number, without question, but it’s an investment in our future to drive economic vitality to encourage growth downtown.”

The price tag was perhaps so big one board member asked for information on scrapping the current building and using the 14-acre site for private development.

“I tend to think that the impacts that come from a facility like a convention center are pretty high. We're producing 14,000 room nights annually, $13 million worth of economic impact in terms of return. The restaurants and the hotels and the shops around here really depend on the type of activity that comes through this building,” Board Chairman Aaron Perri said.

The proposed work on the Century Center itself would cost about $45 million. Suggested revenue sources include tax incremental financing, new markets tax credits, the innkeepers tax, Indiana opportunity zone funding, Section 108 loan guarantees, and a food and beverage tax.

The hotel would be built by a private-sector partner at an estimated cost of $35 million.

“There'd have to be a guarantee that the hotel would be part of it at the same time, not Phase 3, so we aren't involving a building, ‘if you build it they will come’ scenario," Board Member Dr. David Varner said. “We've still got space at the [College Football] Hall of Fame that we could recover, which pretty much is unused.”

Varner said Century Center still runs in the red and needs to be subsidized. He wants some assurance that it wouldn’t just be more of the same with an expanded facility.

The discussion is just beginning and will continue when the board meets again in July.

Part of the proposed expansion includes the renovation of the Bendix Theatre into an esports facility that would host competitive video gaming events.

“Esports is a billion-dollar industry right now, and there’s not really many offerings in our region for esports, so it would be pretty neat to be first to start to dip our toe in that water and see what we could offer here,” Perri said.

Consultants suggested that the Century Center could get into the game with an initial investment of $2.5 million.

“[For] $2.5 mil, we get a lot of technology. We have video boards, ribbon boards, we would have an immersive experience in terms of the setting within Bendix, so new chairs, new carpet, new audio, new visual components, new lighting features and an experience for all to enjoy,” Jarnecke said.

If the venue were successful in attracting esports events, Phase 2 of the renovation would provide additional space for broadcast crews, team training and social spaces designed to create a "gaming village."