Columbia, S.C., had a jumpstart on Gainesville in providing conference and convention space, as the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center just completed a decade in operation.
Columbia and Gainesville are comparable in many ways — both are college towns, and both are looking to spinoffs from academic research as a source of economic development.
Scope of the Projects
The Gainesville project, planned by NP International and the architecture and design firm Gensler, would be part of mixed-use development known as West 38th behind the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center.
The Columbia convention center totals 145,000 square feet of space, roughly three times the size of the conference center proposed in Gainesville, and can accommodate multiple events — up to 10 on the same day.
Even with the large amount of space, the Columbia building is operating at capacity.
“We’re almost maxed out in the spring and fall,” said Mack Stone, the general manager of the building. “An expansion and additional parking would allow us to accommodate even more meetings and conventions.”
Since the Gainesville project is still in the planning phase, the developer and local leaders should consider a larger building, Stone said.
“You will have no trouble filling a new facility, even if you think you have plenty of space,” he said. “In five years, you’ll be talking about an expansion.”
Financing and Economic Impact
Public and private leaders worked together to create the Columbia operating authority that runs the convention center as part of a broad push to diversify the economy. Similarly, NP International said it would seek some form of local tax support for its proposed Gainesville project.
Richland and Lexington counties and the City of Columbia adopted a three-cent tax on hotel revenue to support the convention center.
To avoid the possible issues related to one government’s operation of the convention center, the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism was created. Collection of the tax began two years in advance of the building’s opening.
The University of South Carolina has been essential to the success of the convention center.
“The university has adopted us as the go-to place for meetings and conferences,” said Jason Outman, the director of sales. “Many of the professors are members of national and international organizations that have held conferences here.”
The number of visitors has exceeded 1.5 million.
“The community is retaining more money from the visitors than ever before,” noted Frank Avery, special projects manager for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. Avery worked in economic development in Columbia before moving to Gainesville.
Avery is impressed by the Columbia convention center’s economic impact.
“It has played a major role in recruiting conferences to the area that aligned with some of the region’s target markets,” he said. “These markets included nuclear energy and fuel cell research and development.”
The Columbia project is part of a renewal project for a 10-block section of an area that was once filled with textile mills and railroad stations. In addition to the convention center, the area, called Congaree Vista, now features offices, restaurants, shops and residential units — all within walking distance to the convention center.
Marketing of the Columbia convention center began one year before it opened. Staff gave local leaders an opportunity to see the inside of the building during construction.
“Meeting planners felt they were getting special treatment by having hard-hat tours,” Outman said.
One of the opening events was the chamber of commerce’s annual gala.
“Getting local people in the door was important; they were able to experience the look and feel of the center and tell our story,” Stone said.
The community and the convention center’s operating authority have created incentive packages to compete with communities such as Boston, Cincinnati and San Antonio as well as international destinations to encourage conferences to bring their business to Columbia, Avery said.
“The convention center morphed from just a location for trade shows to become a cultural staple in the area, due to recruiting large-scale meetings, conferences and conventions through the strong partnership with the University of South Carolina,” he said.
Given the success of Columbia’s development and the many similarities between that metro area and the Gainesville region, the question rises: Will we soon be raising our glasses to toast Gainesville’s newest convention space?
The Right Elements for Success
Like Columbia, S.C., Gainesville has many assets that make it well-positioned for a successful conference center, said Frank Avery, special projects manager for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. Avery worked in economic development in Columbia before moving to Gainesville.
The comparable assets include the following:
- A regional focus from leaders in business, government, education and other parts of the community to create a strong core for the creative class and young professionals
- The goal of creating a global presence focused on each area’s business and cultural strengths
- A flagship state university that can drive traffic to a convention center
- Rapidly expanding retail markets and districts that the convention center can tap into as a hospitality asset (The Congaree Vista area in Columbia; Butler Plaza in Gainesville)
Photos courtesy of Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.