|By Ben Werner, The State, Columbia, S.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 19, 2005 - A year after the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center opened, construction has not started on a planned 222-room hotel that planners call essential to the convention center's long-term financial health.
"If there has been any frustration with this facility, it is because we recognize we are not meeting our potential because of not having a hotel," said Steve Camp, chief executive of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism.
Without a hotel, Camp said, the convention center's staff is less able to book events for out-of-town clients. Such events will be a key to the convention center's success as an economic engine because they put more guests in Columbia-area hotels, restaurants and stores.
"We've relied a lot more on local events than we would have liked," Camp said.
A tangle of development, financing and design issues has snarled the hotel's construction. Its proposed site still sits fallow.
The hotel's delay also has caused its proposed upscale restaurant, Ruth's Chris Steak House, to be placed on the back burner.
Efforts to reach Ruth's Chris officials were unsuccessful. The company was based in New Orleans but moved its operations to Florida after Hurricane Katrina.
However, the hotel will open -- possibly in time for the convention center's second anniversary next September or by the end of 2006, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said.
The hotel's private developers are "trying to do everything they can to have the best price they can," Coble said.
Greenville developer Bo Aughtry and his firm, Windsor/Aughtry Co., are working on finalizing funding for the proposed $30 million hotel, Coble said. Aughtry also owns the Hampton Inn on Gervais Street -- a stone's throw from the convention center.
Efforts to reach Aughtry were unsuccessful.
Plans call for a Hilton. Until built, however, anything is possible. For several months, that has been the best way to describe the lack of progress on the hotel.
A host of Columbia firms is suing the city, claiming they are owed money for drawing up plans for what was slated to be a partially city-funded hotel.
The city scrapped its plans to fund the hotel in March 2004 after mounting criticism of a plan that would have made taxpayers liable for $69.9 million in bonds.
Aughtry's bid calls for the hotel to be privately built but with the help of a $3 million city subsidy.
All that ultimately matters, Camp said, is that work on a hotel is started. Camp said he believes that once a convention center hotel is built, people will come to Columbia.
"The Hilton reservation system could help us identify folks," Camp said.
Most national hotel chains that cater to meetings and smaller conventions keep a database of bookings and information about what can and cannot be done at their sites.
Camp said the convention center staff would benefit from tapping into Hilton's network of clients.
More importantly, though, Camp said having the hotel open -- or at least under construction -- is a vital part of pitching Columbia to convention and meeting planners.
"I know the first question that is going to be asked is, 'When are you going to have a convention hotel?'"
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Copyright (c) 2005, The State, Columbia, S.C.
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