When Joshua Nowak moved to Central Pennsylvania to start a new job in 2007, the southeast corner of Lancaster’s Penn Square looked a bit different than it does now.
The 1898 façade of the former Watt & Shand department store was there, “but all of this here was a hole in the ground, with nowhere near the amount of thriving businesses that we have now,” said Nowak, who was seated in a hotel lobby on a recent, drizzly spring day.
By early summer 2009, Lancaster’s long-awaited, much-debated convention center and Marriott hotel opened for business, fueling new businesses and restaurants in the heart of the city’s downtown.
“It’s been fun for me to see the success of all these additional businesses, and see it become a great dining/entertainment corridor,” said Mountville resident Nowak, the facility’s director of sales and marketing.
Last year the Lancaster convention center recorded the second-highest attendance total yet for its largest event room, and now the combined hotel/center has plans for something bigger.
It hopes to begin construction of a 12-story expansion that would add 105 rooms to the existing 300-room Marriott, creating more rooms within walking distance of the convention center. The project also would add a rooftop bar and a “green” roof including an area to catch stormwater, and involves a redesign of the hotel’s current restaurant and bar, just off the main lobby.
The $20 million project received conditional approval in early April from the city planning commission, and still needs to meet some conditions before it can get a permit to begin construction, said Paula Jackson, Lancaster’s chief city planner.
Nowak, who hopes to see construction begin by late summer or early fall and be completed by 2018, said the Marriott expansion will mean great things for both halves of the hotel and convention center.
Having more rooms nearby will mean more large-scale conventions in Lancaster. And since conventioneers go to nearby restaurants and stores, or head out into the Lancaster County countryside, it will offer an economic benefit for the community overall, he said.
“We want to continue to target multiple-day events that bring a large number of attendees to our facility, and most importantly, to our community,” Nowak said. Examples include the recent Zenkaikon anime and sci-fi gathering and the fall religious Voice of the Apostles conference.
“We’ve proven over the years that we can host everything, and can accommodate anywhere from five to 5,000 people,” he said.
Nowak said Freedom Hall, the convention center’s large exhibit hall floor, has scheduled 38 events in the first two quarters of this year, with a total of 118 days of use and attendance of about 124,000.
That puts the hall ahead of its yearly averages of some 75 events a year and attendance that has ranged from 150,000 to 170,000, he continued.
Last year, the hall had its second-best year for attendance, 162,974, falling short of the record of 172,000, set in 2011.
The Lancaster center and Marriott haven’t started marketing or selling the expansion to would-be conventions just yet, Nowak said: “I think we’d like to see that process get a little bit further down the line before we start talking to prospective users about it.”
With 200 full- and part-time employees, the center has remained consistent, business-wise, since opening seven years ago, Nowak said.
Not including the “stub year” of 2009, it has exceeded revenue projections, and the Marriott also has met its original occupancy expectations, he said.
“The hotel and convention center combined have performed very strongly, we’re encouraged that we can do a lot more, and we expect that an expansion will assist us in that and continue to bring in larger-scale events,” he added.
And the fact that the addition is being built shows the center’s commitment to downtown Lancaster, city Mayor Rick Gray said.
“It’s an indication they’re successful and they want to stay, and you can’t do any better than that,” said Gray, Lancaster’s mayor since 2006.
Overall, Gray added, “A large part of the success of downtown Lancaster has been due to the hotel and convention center. It has been a major factor in the revitalization that has occurred around it.”
By David O’Connor, May 13, 2016