Originally created 08/26/01

Conventional thinking



In the drive to make Augusta a destination city for overnight tourism, local government and business leaders have kicked around a bevy of economic-development projects.

Talk of a new arena to replace the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center has surfaced along with airport expansion and downtown revitalization. A world-class convention and trade-show center, similar to Savannah's $98 million Westin Savannah Harbor Resort, has been brought up as well. Why not? It's just talk.

"People like to talk about spending other people's money," said Mayor Bob Young. "I haven't seen anyone demonstrate the justification for building a convention center in Augusta like the one in Savannah. No one has made the case to the community that we need to make such a center. If we do, then why have we made investments in two previous convention centers?"

The mayor has a point. When the civic center opened in 1979, it was touted as Augusta's convention lure, but it never really worked. The arena isn't designed to handle conventions, and no big hotels are nearby.

"The civic center is just not very good as a convention center," said its general manager, Reggie Williams. "We aren't able to meet their needs."

So the Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta, including a 25,000-square-foot conference center, was built in 1992. Trouble is, it was too small. So a $15 million project, adding 20,000 square feet to the Radisson's convention space and a 136-room hotel next door, will be completed in September.

But this isn't the answer either, said Barry White, executive director of the Augusta Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Radisson can support only small and midsize conventions, and even then there is no room for a trade show on the premises.

If Augusta is to compete for convention business with Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus, Ga., Mr. White said, it needs to offer similar accommodations, not a patchwork of previous failures.

"It would be nice to have more flat-floor exhibit space," Mr. White said. "The problem we still have is if someone wants a trade show, all we have is the civic center, which wasn't even built for that and poses transportation problems" in that it is not close to downtown hotels.

Mr. White has started preliminary work on a feasibility study that would analyze the area and suggest what a convention center in Augusta should include, how big a center the area could support, where it should be built and what benefit the community could expect.

Nothing is imminent; the study itself is about a year away. But not everyone is convinced that Augusta needs a larger convention center.

"Our commitment has been to the conference center on the river," Mr. Young said. "First, we had to have the civic center. Then that wasn't good enough, and we needed to have one on the river. Then we needed to have it doubled in size. I don't know how we're ever going to be able to fund everything we want."

No new convention center is included in the master plan designed by downtown development group Augusta Tomorrow.

"We doubled the size of the convention center (at the Radisson)," said Julian Osbon, former Augusta Tomorrow president. "Now we'll be able to handle most of the midsize conventions that come to this area."

The current flaw

While the new Country Suites Augusta Riverwalk, the Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta and its 45,000 square feet of convention space are certainly plush and modern enough to draw midsize conventions, any accompanying trade shows pose a problem.

The only building with the space to accommodate a trade show is the civic center. The problem is, no convention wants to use it because of its cumbersome design and inconvenient location.

The civic center was not designed for convention trade shows. It doesn't have the wide, flat floor and easy access necessary to accommodate them.

And it's six blocks from the hotels and convention center on the riverwalk.

"We've had people hold conventions at the civic center and vow never to come back," Mr. White said. "They couldn't successfully do what they needed to do there. There are only a handful of cities that can accommodate them, and Augusta is not one of them. It's kind of a shame for the second-largest city in Georgia."

Even if conventions were willing to book with the civic center, there's no guarantee they could.

Now that the arena has tenants - the Augusta Lynx of the East Coast Hockey League and the Augusta Stallions of the arenafootball2 league - it must plan for 45 home games and 17 possible playoff dates.

Mr. White said he's never enjoyed trying to sell the civic center for conventions, but it's the only building he has to sell. The arena's design and the absence of nearby hotels had made booking conventions tough enough, but the sports teams have made it near impossible.

"We're thrilled they have those events and are improving the city's quality of life," Mr. White said. "But it's made it even more of a challenge for us to schedule conventions and meetings."

An economic spark

Proponents of a state-of-the-art convention and trade show center say it could be the impetus for other economic development projects in the area. Much has been made, for instance, of Augusta Regional Airport's expansion efforts. Before you build up your airport, however, you need a reason for people to fly in.

"What is in Augusta that would make more people want to fly here?" asked Mr. Williams, the civic center's general manager. "I don't know the answer to that, but if you had a world-class convention and conference center, that would be a reason for people to come."

It worked in Savannah. Savannah International Airport, now considered one of the fastest-growing airports in the country, was sputtering five years ago. Only two airlines were serving the city. Today it has 10.

At least part of the city's increased air traffic has been generated by Westin Savannah Harbor Resort. Completed in late 1999, it includes a $16 million spa and golf resort and an $83 million convention center.

The center boosted Savannah's reputation as a tourist destination, and visiting conferences and convention groups have helped make the airport a hot spot for more airlines.

"If you build a convention center and you have the airport built up to bring in more people, then there would be a reason to build more hotels and add on to the ones you already have," Mr. Williams said. "It seems to me that would satisfy a lot of needs in this community."

Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or jbanks@augusta.com.