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After a Decade of Discussion, the 532-room Hilton Columbus Downtown
Breaks Ground;  Hotel is Already Generating More Convention Business

By Marla Matzer Rose, The Columbus Dispatch, OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 14, 2010--After a decade of discussion and several years of study and political wrangling, dirt was moved yesterday for a publicly financed, 532-room hotel across from the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Representatives from Franklin County, the city of Columbus and the convention industry spoke at a rain-soaked ceremony on the surface parking lot that will be home to the $140million Hilton Columbus Downtown by fall 2012.

"This demonstrates the power of a public/private partnership," said John S. Christie, chairman of the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority board. "Building this hotel means we'll have 900-plus more meetings and conventions that we can compete for, that we couldn't accommodate in the past."

Christie pointed out representatives in attendance from two of the convention center's biggest annual events, the OFA Short Course floriculture convention and the Arnold Sports Festival, which frequently have noted the need for more hotel rooms next to the convention center.

The Columbus-based OFA considered moving to Indianapolis before it re-upped in Columbus through 2016 this spring, based on the new hotel moving forward. The event, which wrapped up yesterday, attracts 9,000 attendees.

A major new group also will be coming to Columbus for the first time because of the new hotel: Three leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention announced they will hold their June 2015 gathering in Columbus. The event is expected to draw 16,000 attendees and generate $6.2 million in visitor spending.

"For five years, we've been looking at Columbus, but we weren't able to because of the lack of hotel rooms," said Don Magee, associate vice president of finance for the Baptist group. Experience Columbus CEO Paul Astleford jokingly gave Magee a giant pen to sign a ceremonial "contract" for the group's convention.

The hotel will be managed by Hilton, but it is being financed by bonds issued by the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority. The bonds are backed by the county, with the city of Columbus also providing a backup guarantee on the debt service. Although public financing of convention hotels is common in cities, it is controversial with some who argue that public money should not go toward a private enterprise such as a hotel.

Franklin County Commissioner John O'Grady addressed these concerns by stressing the return on investment and the importance of the $7 billion-plus local tourism industry to the economy.

"This will stimulate additional private development," O'Grady said. "For every dollar we spend, we get $3.40 in return."

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman touted the 550 permanent jobs the hotel is expected to bring, along with $1.5billion in new spending.

"This helps make Columbus a destination city," Coleman said. "It will be a catalyst for further things."

mrose@dispatch.com

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To see more of The Columbus Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbusdispatch.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

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