Submitted by HCW An artist rendering of the Evansville Doubletree Hotel & Convention Center.
Submitted by HCW An artist rendering of the Evansville Doubletree Hotel & Convention Center.
EVANSVILLE - Old National officials said the connection between the value of The Centre’s naming rights and the bank’s hotel investment was obvious, even though it wasn’t discussed last year when county commissioners awarded the naming rights.

At the time, Old National President Bob Jones said the bank’s commitment to the hotel wouldn’t have changed even if the commissioners didn’t grant the bank naming rights to The Centre.

That wasn’t the message Thursday when unsatisfactory value on the 30-year naming rights agreement between Evansville’s Old National Bank and the city’s convention center was blamed for the collapse of the latest effort to build a Downtown hotel.

“County Commissioners and the city knew the naming rights were a key point for Old National,” Jeff Knight, an executive vice president with Old National, told the Courier & Press on Friday. “We had to have a value associated with the investments.”

Added Kathy Schoettlin, a bank spokeswoman: “We really don’t have a lot to gain in investment in the hotel, but we have to have value.”

Old National, amid much local celebration, announced a year ago it would invest in the hotel project. The bank came forward to fill a gap in the financing after City Council capped the city’s contribution at $20 million.

City officials and developer HCW of Branson, Missouri, were confident the project’s footing was solid — so confident that all parties conducted a groundbreaking March 10. A sign at the construction site proclaimed the Hilton DoubleTree would open in 2015.

There were delays, including a revelation that an initial round of construction bids were above the project’s budget, but Mayor Lloyd Winnecke remained steadfast the hotel was moving ahead.

The mayor and his staff said construction was a matter of when, not if.

But according to Old National officials, in the months since that March groundbreaking, third-party evaluators of the bank’s commitments raised concerns the numbers would not add up.

Those fears multiplied after the construction rebid, which necessitated yet another independent review of the bank’s hotel financing, as well as the value of convention center naming rights. Old National CEO Bob Jones, during a grim news conference Thursday with Winnecke said the bank’s financing of the project was about $6.5 million short.

The contract for Old National’s naming rights at the convention center was approved Dec. 17, 2013, by Vanderburgh County Commissioners. At the time, county commissioners had already looked to sell naming rights on the convention facility, which had been known as The Centre.

County commissioners said they chose Old National for the naming rights to honor the bank’s commitment to invest up to $14 million in the hotel project. The convention facility runs an annual deficit funded by the county, and a new hotel would spark business there, commissioners said.

“We were approached about, would we consider giving ONB naming rights if they made a contribution to the hotel,” County Commissioner Joe Kiefer said last week. “We thought that would make pretty good sense because if we would give them naming rights and they would make a substantial contribution to the hotel, it would be worth it to us. We were actually soliciting people to pay for naming rights. We had directed SMG (manager of the convention facility) to do that already. It just worked out that way. It made perfect sense to sell, or offer them those naming rights.”

Old National in 2010 obtained naming rights on a century-old theater in Indianapolis that had been called Murat Centre. The Evansville-based bank’s intention with those naming rights was to expand its visibility in central Indiana, according to a 2010 Indiana Business Journal article.

Bank officials noted their naming rights agreement on the Evansville convention facility, now known as the Old National Events Plaza, remains in place, but new signs have been not been erected.

Winnecke said Evansville will continue its quest to build a full-service, convention hotel, but he did not know if HCW would be the developer. Jones said Old National still intends to participate.

HCW spent about a million dollars on costs related to the Evansville hotel project, according to CEO Rick Huffman. Costs to Evansville city government were not available. Officials said the city Department of Metropolitan Development is compiling a report.

“We were extremely disappointed to learn that Old National Bank could not participate to the level that was necessary to bring the project to fruition,” Huffman said in a prepared statement. “However, we are extremely grateful to Bob Jones and ONB for their civic consciousness and business acumen in understanding the hotel and convention center is the catalyst needed to support what has already been developed downtown.”

Huffman’s statement quoted the project’s total cost at $78 million. The plan for the empty lot at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Walnut Street included a 244-room Hilton DoubleTree hotel, an apartment tower run by HCW with 123 units, a parking garage with about 630 spaces shared by the hotel and the planned new medical education campus, sky bridges and streetscape improvements.

The hotel was to have a 10th-floor rooftop bar and fitness center and meeting space.

Huffman’s statement quoted the bank’s shortfall at $8 million. Jones told reporters Thursday it was $6.5 million.

Thursday’s announcement was a surprise to many officials, who felt construction was finally about to start. Kiefer said Winnecke called him shortly before the news conference.

“Prior to his news release, I knew nothing about this,” Kiefer said.

For the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which markets Evansville’s convention facilities to local, state and national groups, the announcement was a setback. The city has mostly been out of the convention business since the Executive Inn closed.

Executive Director Bob Warren said a convention hotel in Evansville will be critical to the medical campus’ and the Ford Center’s success, while also lending a boost to “goods and services that are spent in this community.”

“We knew there had been ongoing issues for months,” Warren said of the most recent hotel plan. “But I have not been in the loop on the finances ... We thought it was going to go, and then it stalled.”

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