Long ago I heard luck is “where opportunity meets preparation.” Open your ears, Mobile, because Lady Luck has bloody knuckles from rapping on your metaphorical door.
My wife and I were among the 20,000-plus souls at Pensacola’s third rendition of its pop culture convention, Pensacon. The superb February weather only added to already buoyant spirits among attendees and local merchants.
Built around a core of creative pursuits — film, comics or graphic novels, literature, visual art — sprouting from once-marginalized genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror, these gatherings are proof of the economic power in artistic industry. Credited with $4 million in economic activity, it’s easy to see why Pensacolians have their horn rims steamed up with nerd love.
Pensacon mastermind Mike Ensley wants to spread more of that magic. He told the Pensacola News Journal in an Aug. 18, 2015, article of plans to begin a bigger version named Gulf Coast Comic Con at a nearby location. It was apparent from the as-yet-solidified event’s Facebook page organizers have toured facilities across the coast.
On Feb. 20, Ensley told me they were still looking and had toured Mobile’s convention center. Though he wouldn’t say which locale led the pack, the names Mobile and Biloxi were the only ones mentioned. Originally slated for fall or winter of 2017, Ensley told me 2018 is the current goal.
I spoke with personnel at the Mobile Convention and Visitors Bureau, who mentioned their meeting with Ensley and a tour of the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center. They had no insight on any follow-ups.
If we look at the options available, the facilities and previous accomplishments, it seems an easy choice from my perspective. Mobile should be the front-runner and has the most potential.
While Pensacola “proper” is certainly nice — we could take cues from them on sprucing up downtown — it’s a quarter Mobile’s size. The metro populations are comparable, but Mobile has more potential sponsors.
Pensacon’s main venue is the Pensacola Bay Center, an arena built for sporting events and concerts. It’s made for massive ingress and egress, not milling about through booths and meeting rooms, so the convention has stretched out into venues throughout town.
The officially sponsored hotel for Pensacon is the adjacent Crowne Plaza with 210 rooms. I’ve never seen another comparably sized hotel within their downtown.
Mobile, meanwhile, has a 317,000-square-foot convention center that includes a pair of 50,000-square-foot exhibit halls, 7,000-square-foot ballrooms, 16 meeting rooms, 52,000 square feet of prefunction/registration areas and 45,000 square feet of river terrace. While picking up my Pensacon media pass, a volunteer jokingly begged, “Can we have your convention center, please?” Easy to see why.
The hotel physically connected to Mobile’s convention center is the 373-room Riverview Plaza and there are even more accommodations nearby. Once the 93-room Hilton Garden is completed on Bienville Square, there will be 1,467 rooms in nine hotels within a half-mile of the convention center, half of those rooms within a couple of blocks. There are even more hotels just across Mobile Bay and to the west.
Adjacent facilities like those utilized in Pensacola? There’s the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum and Alabama Cruise Terminal next door. The rest of downtown boasts the Exploreum, the History Museum and the Saenger Theatre in addition to outside spaces like Cooper Riverside Park, Fort Conde, the Mardi Gras park, Bienville and Cathedral squares and Spanish Plaza.
It’s obvious Mobile has better bones for a far bigger event than Pensacon. I also believe it would be more conducive to convention-goers than a Mississippi town infested with casinos bent on fleecing all passersby.
As compared to Mobile’s pre-Lenten events, a convention would be a sliver of the cost. No need for barricades or widespread street cleanup and a fraction of the enhanced security.
Also unlike Mardi Gras, most of the economic activity isn’t just dollars shuffling between locals, it’s coming into town from outside sources. In both years of Pensacon attendance, most everyone we’ve met has been from around the region and across the nation.
Ensley and his cohorts have proven their ability for quick success. I have to believe they could work the same magic in a setting even better suited for it.
How successful could it prove? Ask the folks in Salt Lake City. They staged their first comic con in 2013 and it drew 70,000. That escalated to 120,000 the following two years.
San Diego’s Comic-Con, the largest in the nation, had direct spending totals by attendees in 2013, 2014 and 2015 of an estimated $203.4 million, according to San Diego Convention Center Corp. Combined with attendance and hotel room use, the grand total was $488.4 million of economic impact in those three years.
While Mobile wouldn’t equal San Diego’s draw, just a portion of those sums would be a windfall here. That’s in addition to the impression made on visitors and then passed onto friends.
I want to believe the MCVB is courting Ensley and friends like a lonesome suitor looking for love, right? There must be calls, inquiries, gifts and walks on the beach.
I hope so because Lady Luck’s knocking arm will tire. Then will come her wandering gaze.