|By Gray Beverley, The Macon Telegraph, Ga.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 22, 2004 - A Denver-based consulting company is recommending that a full-service, 300-room hotel next to Macon's convention center would attract more convention business to the city.
Those who have long advocated such a hotel say the study, delivered to City Hall on Tuesday by Webb Group International, is just what they need to move the project forward.
"For the first time I feel like we've really made some inroads in finally getting this hotel built," said Janice Marshall, president and CEO of the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, whose consulting firm studied the project for Macon, said local officials should hire a management company to run city venues such as the Macon Coliseum and Wilson Convention Center and build the hotel to complement them.
Webb, who worked on a similar venture in Denver, said public financing methods typically are more successful, and he urged Macon not to shortchange the project.
"If you look to the future, you don't have any other option," Webb told The Telegraph following his presentation to a special hotel committee. "You either stand still, go forward or retard. I've always said go forward."
Mayor Jack Ellis agreed that a full-service hotel is important to the city's future, and he said that Hilton Hotels likely would manage such a property. An effort to reach the hotel giant late Tuesday was unsuccessful.
John Shoemaker, co-chairman of a local hotel committee, said he supports the project and will work to attract developers. That could include offering incentives, he said.
Shoemaker, president of Riverside Ford and CVB board chairman, said other Georgia cities that compete for convention business are ahead of Macon because they offer full-service hotels next to their meeting facilities.
"We are basically the only community of our size in the state that does not have one," he said. "It's critical to our growth."
Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission and a recent hotel committee appointee, said convention-goers prefer hotels that are next to meeting facilities, and convention planners choose cities that offer them. Topping said he and Shoemaker plan to meet today to start working on a hotel plan.
A convention hotel has been discussed in Macon for years. Since 1997, multiple studies have recommended building one.
Officials say this study distinguishes itself because it provides a checklist of how to make that recommendation a reality.
City Council President Anita Ponder said a majority on the council already thinks the hotel is a good idea. She said Webb's study is a comprehensive look at how to build such a hotel, including how to pay for it.
"I don't think we would have spent $60,000 (for the Webb study) if we didn't want something that would move us forward toward the hotel," Ponder said. "I think it's going to be helpful for us. It's almost like a 'how-to' book."
Included in Webb's 782-page study are details about financing, design, construction, marketing and who can do some of that work. Webb's team said Macon has the location, interstates, historical attributes and meeting facilities to attract more convention and tourism business. But it's lacking the hotel.
The study gives numerous options on how the hotel should be financed. One of them calls for bonds to be issued to help pay for it.
Many council members said they support a hotel but need to review the study before deciding how to proceed. In May, several council members were skeptical about using bonds.
Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, who represents the district where the hotel would be placed, said Tuesday she hopes a public-private partnership can be formed.
Councilman Henry Ficklin, chairman of the council's Appropriations Committee, said it will be an "uphill battle" to get support for public financing of any project.
Councilman Stebin Horne said a hotel is not a necessity in tough financial times and that he opposes using public money to build one without first giving a raise to city employees.
Ponder said she likely will ask the Webb team to return to Macon in February to review its study in detail with council members.
The council is expected to meet next week to discuss privatizing the city-run venues, a move supported by Webb and the city's financial advisers.
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