A dozen years in the making, the Augusta Convention Center officially opens its doors today with 20 events scheduled in a 38,000-square-foot meeting hall.
The downtown complex, also known as the Trade, Exhibit and Event Center, encountered several years of Augusta Commission gridlock over its location, funding source, management and most recently, cost to operate.
“I think at the end of the road, this is going to be like something you see in a yearbook: Remember what we had to go through to get it?” Commissioner Joe Jackson said.
Jackson, like most on the commission, took office after the body agreed to build the center but before many of its details were worked out.
After voters authorized sales taxes for the project in 2005, commission disagreement delayed construction until 2010. Nine years earlier, the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau had asserted the city was losing events because it lacked suitable meeting space.
The facility's potential to draw tourists to hotels, shops and restaurants has never been disputed by merchants. After several lean budget years, though, the commission was aghast to realize last year that the city stood to gain little actual rental revenue, and for months it debated the terms of operating agreements for the center and parking garage.
The economic benefit to the city will come from visitor spending. The CVB estimates the events now scheduled will generate $12 million in spending on hotel rooms, food, drinks and anything else subject to sales taxes.
This fall's half Ironman triathlon, expected to draw 5,000 people, accounts for $4 million for athletes’ hotel rooms, training and an exposition in the exhibit hall.
"It's not the income from the convention center, but from the economic impact of bringing all those people in," said Paul Simon, the
president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, which runs the downtown Marriott at the Convention Center and was authorized by the commission to operate the adjoining convention center, too. "If you look at all these other convention centers, they're always offering discounts to get you to come to town."
Simon and commissioners agree that adequately marketing the center to prospective conventions is key, although the details of how to do that have not been completed.
Last year, the city paid the CVB $400,000 to market the center, and it continues to promote the "TEE," a name that Augusta Riverfront and Marriott officials do not use. Annual operating expenses in the center's early years are projected to exceed $800,000, even with 20 events scheduled.
Simon, whose company shares management with Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle, said the city's contract requires the CVB to market the center, but he disagrees with the CVB’s using "TEE."
"If they say 'convention center,' people in that business know it's a convention center," he said.
Today promises a full day of events held by the city, the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce and the CVB.
The events start with the CVB's annual Augusta State of Tourism luncheon at noon, followed by a chamber business expo from 2-7 p.m. The ribbon-cutting is at 6 p.m.