TEE time approaches

Design of center accommodates expansion needs

It's best to plan ahead.

That's the philosophy adopted for the design of several convention and trade centers across the Southeast, including Augusta's TEE Center.

In late June, city officials will break ground for the $38 million Trade, Exhibit and Event Center, which is designed to accommodate more conventions, meetings and events in the community. The TEE Center is tentatively set to open in spring 2012.

The initial steps have already been taken if the demand for business exceeds available space in the future, said Barry White, the president and CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The TEE Center is being designed to expand again in the future," White said. "When that is, we don't exactly know yet. It will be based on demand."

The wall facing 10th Street will be constructed so that it can easily be torn down and the facility expanded toward 10th Street, if more space is needed. This would nearly double the space of the TEE Center, which will measure 113,000 square feet, White said.

"Whatever is needed, we've got room to grow," he said.

If it appears that additional space is needed, a study will be performed to determine whether there is enough demand for a larger facility. Then, city officials must decide whether they want to pursue an expansion, White said.

Augusta's TEE Center would be following in the path of the Classic Center in Athens, Ga., which is embarking on its third expansion. Since the original construction began in 1995, the Classic Center has expanded across the street and into a nearby historic warehouse, said Paul Cramer, its executive director.

The expansion will almost double the size of the facility. The average size of conventions has grown from 500 to 1,200 people, sometimes reaching 2,000 to 3,000 people, so more space is needed, he said.

"I think that's consistent with what's happened in our entire region," Cramer said. "The growth that the Southeast has seen has been incredible. With that growth in population, the associations and convention business has continued to grow at the same rate," Cramer said.

THE TEE CENTER is actually an expansion of a city-owned conference center at Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites that includes a ballroom and meeting space, White said. Meeting planners are looking for three key components: ballroom/meeting space, hotel rooms and exhibit space.

"That's what we're adding," White said about the 40,000-square-feet of exhibit space being constructed for the TEE Center. "We fully anticipate this to be very successful. It's not a new venture for us. It's expanding an already successful facility."

This isn't the first expansion at the site. In 2001, the original conference center was expanded, and hotel operators built the Marriott, he said.

The TEE Center is being constructed because Augusta had lost more than $10 million in business to other cities because it lacked meeting space, White said. As soon as ground is broken for the facility, officials will "begin aggressively marketing" to potential clients to book space at the center.

The Savannah International Trade & Convention Center in Savannah, Ga., has been designed to double its size without much disruption, said its general manager, Bob Coffey.

"We're not restricted by geography or other development around us that much. It would be a very easy proposition to expand this facility," Coffey said.

The 350,000-square-foot center, which opened in 2000, has nonload-bearing, or knockout, walls. In order for an expansion to be considered, the center would need to have an increase in demand for space, he said.

Coffey's team is working on securing a nearby hotel. If that site is obtained, they would be able to accommodate more and larger conventions, which would then prompt a need for a larger facility, he said.

The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center in South Carolina's capital doesn't have immediate plans for expansion, but it also has a knockout wall adjacent to its parking lot, if more space is ever needed, said Vice President and General Manager Mack Stone. The 145,000-square-foot facility opened in 2004.

"The idea is to build the expansion and have it completed, and then knock that wall out so that business in the existing facility is impacted the least as it possibly could be," Stone said.

Additionally, the Lowndes County Conference Center in Valdosta, Ga., was built with a knockout wall so that it could easily be expanded toward the parking lot if future business warrants it, said Executive Director Tim Mabe. Officials have purchased additional land to create new parking spaces if the existing parking lot disappears because of an expansion.

"When you talk to most facility managers, usually if their building has been made in the last 20 years, it's been made where it could be expanded," Mabe said.

HAVING LAND AVAILABLE to expand plays a vital role in future growth. Nashville, Tenn., has outgrown the Nashville Convention Center, so a new structure is under construction, Executive Director Charles Starks said. The Music City Center, valued at nearly $600 million, is set to open in three years. It will be able to compete for 75 percent of convention business nationwide, he said.

In that case, organizers had to find a Plan B when their initial expansion plan didn't work out, Starks said.

"We had an expansion plan in place when this building was first thought of in the early to mid-'80s, and as our downtown developed, the space that was deemed appropriate for expansion became valuable. That's where we built our arena, so our expansion space went away," Starks said.

The 2-million-square-foot facility is under construction about one block away, but the lesson to be learned is that it's important to secure land for future plans, Starks said. Though the land was adjacent to the convention center, the city owned the land and plans were never set in stone.

"Certainly, if you can acquire land and have it available, it makes a lot of sense. A lot of times it's not easy to do," Starks said.

The Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., has nearly tripled in size since it opened in 1985, though there were no original plans for expansion, said its interim director, Mike Shuford.

"After about the first 10 years, we figured that we were woefully undersized," Shuford said.

Luckily, there was a lot next to the building that was being used for parking, so they had available space for an expansion, he said. They started acquiring the property in 1995 but didn't start construction until 2001. The 300,000-square-foot building was completed in 2003.

The $45 million project was a total overhaul. New convention space was built, and existing space was completely renovated, leaving only the roof from the original building, Shuford said.

The Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center had land available for its expansion, but officials faced extra challenges because the complex was a registered historic building. The staff had to ensure that new construction blended into the historic structure, Executive Director Larry Campbell said.

The Historic Columbus Iron Works facility, which dates to the early 1850s, was converted into a convention center in 1979. Because of funding issues, part of the building wasn't completed. In 1999, Campbell got funding to finish the building and add to it. The project was finished in 2004.

Campbell doesn't foresee an expansion anytime soon, but he said that his predecessors didn't think a larger facility was necessary 30 years ago.

"For the size of our community and hotel accommodations, we're probably about where we need to be," Campbell said. "We do turn away some business on some days because of not having the space available, but it's a juggling act. You don't want to turn away business, but it's not inexpensive to create space."

ACROSS THE BOARD, convention center officials said that in order to move forward with an expansion, they would need to have a study performed by an outside consulting group to determine whether the enlargement is needed.

This research determines the types of market segments available, the best design and the size of the complex, said Lowndes County's Mabe, who has consulted on five convention center projects in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

Mabe is considering hiring a company to determine whether to expand Valdosta's center, which was built in 1999. The studies can cost from $20,000 to $60,000, but that's less expensive than constructing a building that no one uses, he said.

He recalls several cities, including one near Salt Lake City that were advised not to proceed with an expansion or construction of a new facility.

"It's important to do your research on if you should build, and if you did, who would come," Mabe said. "Particularly with the cost of concrete and steel these days, you really need to be sure that you're going to have the type of business that you want to get and what your return is going to be if you build it."

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