For the last seven years, Gainesville and the O'Connell Center have been home to the Jehovah's Witness convention for North Florida and South Georgia.
With negotiations involving the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Alachua County Visitors & Convention Bureau and the University of Florida ongoing, the goal is a long-term agreement to keep the convention here. But there is, at this point, some uncertainty that the convention will even return in 2012.
Speaking to the county's Tourist Development Council last Wednesday, Jehovah's Witness field representative Bill Malloy said talks with UF were not at an "impasse" but had hit a "bump in the road."
Alachua County Visitors & Convention Bureau Executive Director Roland Loog said the rising cost of renting out the O'Connell Center, which is primarily paid for by the county tourist development tax, or bed tax, also have become a concern.
Loog said that, if UF sticks to its proposed rent increase for 2012, the county's costs will have increased by some 300 percent over eight years.
For the first conventions in 2005, the county's costs were $7,500 for each three-day event. In 2011, the rate was approximately $19,100 per event. Loog said the proposed cost for 2012 could be as high as $23,000 for each convention, combining for some $46,000. By comparison, the entire Visitors & Convention Bureau annual budget to draw in conferences and conventions is in the range of $90,000 to $100,000, Loog said.
The conventions, Loog said, are "very valuable to us."
Combined, they generate 10,000 to 12,000 room nights at area hotels, Loog said. That's comparable to a home football weekend against the University of Alabama and approaches the total nights for GatorNationals.
Malloy told the Tourist Development Council that the Jehovah's Witnesses felt that the University of Florida police assigned to the event and the clean-up crews were unnecessary. He said the organization has its own security and ushers, and members have a reputation for cleaning the venues they use to the point that the facilities are cleaner than when the group arrived.
Ed Poppell, UF's vice president for business affairs and economic development, said the Jehovah's Witnesses have been a "great group" and that the school wants to keep the conventions for the long term.
Poppell estimated that approximately half the rental costs are for police and security and overtime, and fringe benefits costs have been the driving force of increases.
While the Jehovah's Witnesses have not caused problems, Poppell said the university could not host an event that draws some 6,000 to 8,000 to the O'Connell Center without police for security — particularly in the post-Sept. 11 world.
He said negotiations are continuing.
"We are working with them to see how we can compromise and keep them coming to Gainesville," Poppell said.
Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or firstname.lastname@example.org.