Originally created 01/26/03

Others ahead of Augusta in race for exhibit space



Every year, Macon holds a Christmas Made in the South craft fair. Just like Augusta.

And in the past, officials in Macon had to cram booths in the only space that could hold them all - the floor of the city's sports arena. Just like Augusta.

But eight years ago, when Macon opened its $20 million Centreplex and combined a new convention center and exhibit hall with the coliseum, enough holiday artisans signed up to fill the newly doubled, 82,000 square feet of continuous floor space.

Not all groups take up as much space, but the Centreplex addition has made it much easier for Macon to attract regional groups, state associations and industry trade shows, said Brenda Thompson, the facility's marketing manager.

"We were still doing some of those shows (before the Centreplex was built), but it was on a much smaller scale," she said.

Barry White doesn't anticipate needing a project that large for Augusta to compete with Macon and similar-size Georgia cities for convention traffic and its highly coveted visitor spending dollars.

All he wants is a big box.

"It's a large building, with a flat, load-bearing floor, no columns, ceiling height of about 30 feet (and) power grid in the floor that can accommodate individual exhibit booths," said Mr. White, who described the facility to the Augusta Commission last week.

The executive director of the city's convention and visitors bureau said Augusta has adequate meeting rooms and ballrooms but seriously lacks one key component that meeting planners look for - an exhibit hall to hold convention-related booths, trade shows and car or boat shows.

The visitors bureau has commissioned a feasibility study for building an exhibit hall and trade center in Augusta. Last week, Mr. White publicly presented the first phase of the study, which concluded that the city could support a modest-size exhibit hall of between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet.

It stated that the best spot for such a building would be connected to or adjacent to the Radisson Riverfront Hotel Augusta, which already houses the city-owned convention center and more than 30,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space.

As for existing exhibit hall space, there is only 14,570 square feet of display area in the Richmond County Civic Center - nearly a half of what's available in Athens, Ga., and a fourth of what Perry, Ga., offers.

"When they compared us to our competition in Georgia, Augusta ranks first in the number of hotel rooms within walking distance to our conference and meeting space and fourth in the total square footage of conference and ballroom space," Mr. White said. "When they compared our exhibit hall space ... Augusta ranked toward the bottom."

The study did not include the Atlanta convention centers and the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center because they are so large Augusta does not compete with them for bookings.

The initial report also did not include how much the building is expected to cost or the exact spot where it should be built. Those details are expected to come at the end of February.

"Cities much smaller than Augusta offer more space," Mr. White said. "The competition's been heating up for some time."

Already exceeding Augusta in available function space, Columbus, Ga., is about to begin an expansion project to make it even more attractive to meeting planners.

In 1979, Columbus led the way for function spaces when it converted a historic iron works facility.

"It was really the only major facility outside of Atlanta in the state that had meeting, exhibit and banquet space all under one roof," said Larry Campbell, the director of the city's Trade and Convention Center. "In these last 22, 23 years, a lot of cities in Georgia have done buildings.

"There's obviously more competition for those out-of-town dollars."

The competition started around the 1960s when the federal government began supporting urban-renewal projects, which included building convention centers, Mr. Campbell said.

"Once some people had them, then everybody else wanted one - they saw the advantage of them," he said. "You could almost see the Atlantas of the world had them, then the Macons and Columbuses of the world had them and now the Valdostas and the Romes (Ga.) of the world had them."

And the recent wave of upgrades to the original facilities has repeated in similar fashion, he said.

After years of attracting conventions, typically with between 400 and 800 attendees and often displaying exhibit booths, Columbus's convention center is about to undergo its first major renovation.

It broke ground last year to double the size of the facility and expand its exhibit halls from 46,000 square feet to 54,000 square feet.

The $35 million project is being paid for with a combination of special purpose local option sales tax, bonds, private money and state funding.

Augusta commissioners may put a 10-year sales tax referendum before voters later this year to help fund an exhibit and trade center, as well as a proposed $66 million performing arts center and an $89 million coliseum.

The 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax could collect enough money in 10 years to pay off a capital improvement bond in excess of $300 million.

Another part of the exhibit center study that will be released later is the expected return of investment.

Larger cities, especially Atlanta, saw their convention dollars take a significant hit with the economic downturn and decline of business travel after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Large trade shows have been hurting because people have been cutting back on their marketing dollars," said Lisa Burton, senior conference manager for the Atlanta-based event planning group Meeting Expectations. "It all goes with the economy."

But Mr. White said Augusta has not felt a similar downturn. Last year, hotel and motel tax revenues were up 3 percent in Richmond County and 5 percent in Columbia County from the previous year.

Mr. Campbell said smaller cities might have benefited from the changes in travel spending.

"What has happened with some events, instead of doing a national meeting, they've broken them down to regional meetings," he said.

That's one reason why Columbus tourism officials are primed to start marketing the new facility.

Peter Bowden, the deputy director for the city's convention and visitors bureau, said he intends to bring in a team of meeting planners - even while the building is under construction - to tell them why they should book their conventions in Columbus.

"With this," he said, "we've got a whole new playing field now."

SPACE: THE FINAL FRONTIER

Most of Georgia's cities outside Atlanta outrank Augusta in available exhibit hall space. Exhibit halls are large, open rooms with load-bearing floors and high ceilings to accommodate convention trade shows.

City Square footage of exhibit halls
Perry 65,000
Columbus 54,000
Gwinnett 50,000
Dalton 40,500
Macon 30,800
Athens 27,985
Augusta (civic center) 14,570
Jekyll Island 11,600
Albany 0
Rome 0

Source: Strategic Advisory Group LLC

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227 or vicky.eckenrode@augustachronicle.com.