Collinsville, Ill. to Expand Gateway Convention Center

COLLINSVILLE -- Despite delays resulting from the theft of $200,000, the Gateway Center expansion is back on track, and the city is about to complete its deal to support it.

The $10 million expansion of the Collinsville convention center originally was slated to break ground in September. But when an employee was accused of and eventually pleaded guilty in connection with the theft of $200,000, the project was put on hold.

It now is underway again, after a complete audit of the center's finances.

"Our procedures changed as soon as this came to light," center director Cindy Warke said. "We've implemented a number of controls, and our auditors made further recommendations to keep this from ever happening again."

The audit has not been released yet, Warke said. It will be discussed at the convention authority's next meeting. But she said other than the embezzlement, the financial health of the center is "great."

Last December, the city agreed to provide $1.7 million in a tax increment financing grant for the center's expansion, as well as guaranteeing about $300,000 a year for the next 17 years from a tax increment financing fund to secure the bonds. The city already has paid $850,000 -- half its upfront commitment. The remaining $850,000 and the second half of the agreement will come before the City Council on Dec. 13.

"It was approved last year, so it's just following through with the financing mechanism," City Manager Hank Sinda said.

As agreed last year, the convention center will issue the bonds, but both sides must approve an intergovernmental agreement to ensure the center will have enough money to cover the bonds -- thus the city's commitment. The Gateway Center has pledged to rebate any unneeded TIF funds at the end of each year to the city.

The much-delayed expansion will add about 10,000 square feet in function space, 3,800 square feet in storage and 4,000 square feet for administrative space. It will add a rotunda to the north side of the building, two additional restrooms and a new box office, as well as the new ballroom and meeting rooms.

The total square feet of usable space will go from 72,500 to 103,000, Warke said, putting the center back in competition with the new St. Charles convention center due to open in April.

"We are really excited," Warke said. "We really feel we have the support of the council, and it's a very viable project. We're anxious to get started."

The project is essentially the same as last year, with the addition of sidewalks and more parking.

"It was necessary in order to satisfy the city's mandatory parking requirements," Warke said.

Parking already is a problem at the center, particularly during the popular train, woodworking and fishing shows, Warke said. Unfortunately, the additional parking will eliminate the decorative pond in front of the center.

Other changes include the possible elimination of the front canopy, intended to shield arrivals from the weather.

The months-long delay resulted from the indictment of former finance director Darlene Armstrong, who was accused of taking $200,000 from the center. Armstrong pleaded guilty to mail fraud Nov. 1, and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

The case also has temporarily shelved the city's plans to attract a full-service hotel to partner with the center.

"We did send out (requests for proposals), but we didn't pursue anyone because of that issue," Community Developer Paul Mann said. "When the time is right, we may go out again... The market is not good. Once the (Collinsville Crossings shopping center development) and the new movie theater go in, then we can start talking about a hotel."

The city will discuss the second part of the agreement Dec. 13, and vote on it Dec. 27 -- nearly one year to the day after the first vote. Weather permitting, construction would begin in March, and finished in 11 to 12 months. The center will continue to operate during construction, Warke said.

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