Area leaders celebrated the grand opening of Augusta’s newest attraction – a riverfront convention center in the heart of downtown Augusta – as a transformative moment for the city Thursday.
“I am thrilled beyond belief,” said Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, who served on the city commission during part of the body’s dozen-year effort to build Augusta’s first convention center. “It’s greater than I ever thought it would be. I love the inclusion of the brick. There’s no reason a place like this can’t be hopping all the time.”
Designed by architect tvsdesign and built by contractor R.W. Allen and Associates, the $50 million Reynolds Street center incorporates a historic brick cotton warehouse into its design and features 38,000 square feet of open meeting space.
The facility, which adjoins the downtown Marriott – now known as Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center – boldly marks Augusta’s entry into the Southeastern convention scene, said Butch Gallop, a longtime consultant on the project.
“Savannah needs to watch out,” Gallop said. “This is an exceptional facility. Augustans today should be really proud.”
Visitors of all ages flocked to the center Thursday for a business expo, the CVB’s annual State of Tourism luncheon and the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner.
Aquinas High School junior Lydia Purcell, who attended the ribbon-cutting and dinner with Youth Leadership Richmond County, said the group had visited the center before it opened and now was able to see it in action.
“It’s really interesting,” Lydia said. “It’s just given downtown a face-lift, and hopefully that will spill over across the rest of downtown.”
Paul Simon, the president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, the firm that runs the Marriott and now the convention center, said it will transform the city.
“In my opinion, it’s going to change the center of downtown Augusta,” Simon said. “We look forward to it bringing a lot of business to downtown.”
Simon and members of the Augusta Commission spent many hours over the past year reviewing complex and sometimes divisive management agreements related to operations at the convention center and parking garage. His company shares management with Morris Communications Co., the owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
For Mike Burkett, the president of Virginia College’s Augusta campus, the convention center serves as an enhancement to the area’s economy and a possible venue for the college’s graduation ceremonies.
“Anything that strengthens the economy of the CSRA is good for the school,” Burkett said.
It is operated by a private company, but “this is the citizens of Augusta’s building,” Mayor Deke Copenhaver said.
“It’s amazing what’s been built here,” he said. “We’re transforming the landscape of the city.”
The CVB suggested in 2001 that Augusta was losing events from a lack of meeting space. The CVB rallied voters to support a 2005 sales tax referendum that included funding for the convention center, recalled Dayton Sherrouse, the CVB chairman and the executive director of Augusta Canal Authority.
“Twenty years from now, we’re going to be thinking, how did we ever get along without this?” said Remer Brinson, the president of the chamber’s board of directors.
Officials said the success of the center – often called the Trade, Exhibit and Event Center – depends on getting the word out. City Administrator Fred Russell administered an “oath” to everyone in attendance, deputizing each as an ambassador for the complex. The center has just 20 events booked and saw two cancel from delays in approval of its operating documents.
“Now the real work begins,” said former Commissioner Don Grantham, who served on the body during much of the decision-making and brokered a deal with black commissioners to support the convention center in return for funding for the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem redevelopment project. “That’s what really got it started. Now come see what Augusta, Ga., has to offer. Not just a golf course, but all the other things.”