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A Publicly Funded Conference Center In a Privately Funded Hotel May Be an Unworkable Idea in Jacksonville, North Carolina
By Christopher De Nittis, The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Apr. 5, 2004 - Last year, the Jacksonville City Council OK'd a publicly funded conference center that would go in a privately funded hotel, but when developers recently presented conceptual drawings of the project, the sketches renewed past council concerns. 

Preliminary drawings show meeting rooms, a ballroom, a dining area and supporting facilities on the first level of a three-floor Hilton hotel. 

"How do you determine where the public and private investments are?" Councilman Martin Aragona Jr. said. 

"I've always had that fear since last year when we decided it would be one building. I don't like it." 

Mayor Jan Slagle, who wasn't in office last year, said she was surprised to see the conference center was to be located in the hotel. 

"I thought they were going to be two separate buildings," she said. "But I'll reserve judgment on whether this is a good or bad idea until the final drawings are presented." 

If the conference center ends up in the hotel, Slagle suggested that the project could cost less that the $14 million the city council has tentatively agreed to pay for construction. 

In 2003, the council voted 4-2, with Aragona and Councilwoman Nancy Cleveland voting no, to sign what was called a "memorandum of agreement" with the development firm Mesirow Stein and hotel operator Summit Hospitality. 

Under the agreement, the city would pay $12 million for the 40,000-square-foot conference center, an estimated $4 million for the purchase and rehabilitation of 16 acres along U.S. 17 needed for the entire project and up to $385,000 annually for between 15 and 25 years to Summit to help with operating costs. 

"The schematic is beautiful but my chief concern is that it shouldn't cost this much money if we're putting the conference center in the hotel," Slagle said. 

Councilman Turner Blount, however, said the drawings depict a reasonable conference center complex that would improve the look of the area. The project would be at the former Onslow Inn site on Marine Boulevard across from the Jacksonville Police Department. 

"We could probably use something like that there," Blount said. "I like the outline of the conference center hotel and it's pretty impressive for that area. It looks good." 

Blount said he feels secure about the project due to the city's hiring of Charlotte attorney Glen Hardymon to help negotiate the public-private deal. 

Councilman Horace Mann noted that the drawings presented by Chicago-based Mesirow Stein in March are preliminary concepts of what the complex could look like. 

"This is just the first step we go through in determining what will work over there," he said. "It's a conceptual drawing, nothing official, it's just what one person thinks. The council hasn't even discussed it yet. 

"What they've given us is a great first start to whet our appetites and to let us think and figure out what we like and what we don't like." 

Mann wants more detailed information about the functional aspects of the building. 

"I've got questions about the small meeting rooms and maximizing the space inside," he said. 

Councilwoman Nancy Cleveland reiterated her doubts about the project. 

"I still have a problem with a conference center in a hotel," she said. "If it's such a good idea, why doesn't the hotel pay for it? I understand the city has to put faith money toward the public/private partnership but I don't think we should put big money into it. 

"Hotels all over have meeting rooms in them; I don't understand why taxpayers should pay for a convention center in a hotel." 

Cleveland said she didn't see anything spectacular about the drawings, saying the building presented looked like any other hotel. 

"Of course, I didn't expect the Taj Mahal or anything. It is exactly what I expected." 

Councilman Jerry Bittner said the conference center project is still a workable idea. 

"I think the economics can work out for the city, and it still appears to be a viable project. The increased employment is definitely a positive factor." 

Two hundred new jobs would be created by the conference center complex, said Mesirow Stein vice president Paul McDermott. 

"Those jobs will include managers, office staff, and restaurant and bar personnel," he said. "There will also be a number of indirect jobs created by the 150,000 new visitors coming to Jacksonville and the $12.5 million they will spend here each year." 

While Aragona said he would like the conference center and hotel to be two separate entities, "not only from an ownership standpoint but from costs as well," McDermott said that the complex approach would save money. 

"With a combined building, we're able to avoid duplicating certain space areas like kitchens, maintenance rooms, storage closets and service areas," he said. "A combined space shares those services and reduces cost. We've ended up with the same size and number of meeting rooms with this plan." 

"This plan was a result of an open planning process with the city," McDermott said. 

-----To see more of The Daily News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

(c) 2004, The Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. HLT, 


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