|By Arlinda Smith Broady, Savannah Morning
News, Ga.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 9, 2010 -- GLANCE ACROSS RIVER STREET to the opposite shore of the Savannah River, and you'll see a view that's a lot different than it was a decade ago. The Savannah International Trade and Convention Center sits little more than shouting distance from City Hall, like an alabaster ambassador. It draws thousands to the Hostess City, although it's not a money generator itself, and there were rough patches to bringing it online. Now, it's about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, and government officials, tourism experts and business leaders agree it has a bright future in helping to further local economic development.
Since it opened, the center has brought in 784 meetings and conventions, 69 trade shows, 108 public shows and 489 banquets. These events have generated more than $135 million in direct spending to the city.
Formal celebration of its first 10 years will take place this week, with a reception for the tourism industry Tuesday evening and a luncheon Wednesday featuring Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle as keynote speaker.
These days, Mark Smith, general manager of the downtown Savannah Mulberry Inn, chairs the Georgia International and Maritime Trade Center Authority, the body that oversees the trade center.
When it was first proposed, though, Smith was all for a convention center but was among opponents of the current site.
"If you look at the 17-year history of the project, the building and the bulk of the Savannah hotels are separated by a huge physical barrier," Smith said.
He and other business leaders formed Savannah First, a concerned citizens group that lobbied for an alternative site. With their urging, the city considered a tract next to the current Savannah Marriott Riverfront hotel and another where the main post office sits on Fahm Street.
Several other groups, including the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, endorsed the Hutchinson Island site.
In late 1994, design plans were released, and the project appeared to be under way.
Cost becomes the key issue
Once the location was settled upon, the next big hurdle came from the area of funding.
The city agreed to a 1 percent increase in the hotel/motel tax to generate money for the operation of the trade and convention center in 1995. But CSX, the property developer, was having problems raising capital.
Along the way, the price of the facility doubled from an estimate of $50 million to close to $100 million. By the end of 1996, $98 million in financing was secured and a groundbreaking ceremony took place in December.
"I was a young county commissioner when the idea of an international convention center came up," said Chatham County Commissioner Patrick Shay. "It was around the time of the Olympic games, and there was such optimism about where that exposure could take us."
Chatham was one of the first counties to take advantage of new legislation allowing for a local penny sales tax called SPLOST.
By 1997, construction had begun, but cost overruns were threatening to cripple the project. The county had to come up with an additional $1 million to help keep construction on track. The final cost came in somewhere around $107 million, which included construction, land and infrastructure.
The controversy even extended to naming the facility.
The Georgia International Maritime and Trade Center gave way to the current moniker in December 1997. Several delays caused the opening to move from March to a few months later. On May 5, 2000, the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center officially opened.
After convincing state, county and city governments, taxpayers and tourists to believe the former eyesore had the potential to become a jewel, it was time to prove it.
Promises made, promises delivered
Smith, the trade center authority chairman and onetime opponent, has become its head cheerleader.
"The community had a decision to make on where to locate a sizeable investment, and we engaged in a vigorous debate to come up with the best location," he said. "Now it's time for everyone to get on board and move forward with that decision."
But it's not difficult to get behind a project that delivered on its promises. For anyone keeping score, Smith said, the trade center has done so in several areas:
-- It's fulfilled its obligation to taxpayers.
The three Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendums that went into building and continue to finance the operations of the center have been successful, he said.
"The building has no debt. It operates efficiently, and the local taxpayers haven't had to put an additional dime into it," he said. The 1 percent increase in hotel/motel taxes is used for operational expenses, and the center has never had to ask for more money to stay afloat.
-- It brings in money for local businesses.
"The trade center has generated $135 million in direct spending by convention goers for meals, gifts, tours -- everything," Smith said.
He added that about 600,000 hotel room nights were sold based on meetings booked at the center. And that number is probably a little higher given that some attendees may use non-convention accommodations or extend their stay.
The demand for hotel rooms has begun to swell, and that's spawning an increase in development.
In the 17 years since the trade center was conceived, we've gone from about 8,000 hotel rooms to more than 14,000 in the metro area, Smith said.
"It's not all because of the trade center, but it's a factor," he said, adding jobs and economic growth come with those new hotels.
-- It saves local taxpayers money.
In 2008, Chatham County saw $1.096 billion in tourism expenditures, which generated 11,740 jobs with a payroll of over $285 million, according to a study prepared for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. That same data show tourism also brought close to $80 million in state and local taxes.
That provides tax relief of $664 per household, according to Steve Morse, an economist at the Tourism Institute at the University of Tennessee.
At the February meeting of the Georgia Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus, Morse gave a presentation on how to spread the word in your community that tourism is economic development. His study was prepared for the Georgia Department of Economic Development and used information from the U.S. Travel Association's report "2008 Travel Economic Impact on Georgia State, Counties and Regions."
He stressed the fact that most people don't realize how strong an impact tourism has on the economy because it doesn't come with big machines or power plants.
People understand dollars, however, he said.
"If it were not for state and local taxes generated by tourism, each Chatham County household would pay $664 more in taxes," Morse said.
-- It generates regional, national and international buzz.
Without the trade center, there's no way the G-8 summit could have taken place here six years ago.
"The trade center was integral to our bid to host the G-8 Summit in 2004," said Kevin Langston, deputy commissioner for tourism for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. "It would be impossible to buy the kind of positive media attention that Savannah and the trade center experienced during the G8 Summit. In its tenth year, the trade center remains a vital part of the community, continuing to generate business and meetings traffic to Savannah."<>Smith agreed. "We had 2,400 working journalists use our facility, stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and tour our city," he said. >
And since only a few dozen got to report from Sea Island, there were plenty with extra time to write about a charming southern town that was emerging as a tourism powerhouse.
"And don't discount the other conventions, no matter how large or small. We're constantly getting feedback from people who've been here who want to come back," Smith said.
-- It spawned one of downtown's coolest features, the water ferry system.
Savannah has the only convention center in the United States with an accompanying water ferry. And although its potential is far from being realized, it's the key factor in unifying the island and the mainland.
Being attractive beats being big
In the convention business, biggest doesn't always mean best, but size does matter. Savannah's trade center ranks 25th in size among the 60 centers, with more than 250,000 square feet of meeting space in the country, according to CVENT Destination Guide's Supplier Network list.
The event management company supplies meeting planners with data on everything from event space to accommodations, local attractions and more.
With 543,742 square feet of meeting space at the trade center, this relatively small town is often in the running with heavy hitters such as St. Louis, Boston, Tampa, San Antonio, Miami, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Portland, Ore., and Columbus, Ohio.
"The CVB books about 70,000 hotel room nights each year for that facility," said Joseph Marinelli, president of the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The vision to create this economic generator for Savannah has created many ripple effects."
Georgia's First City has caught the eye of meeting planners across the country.
Most recently, the trade center was recognized as one of the top convention and exposition venues by the readers of Facilities & Destinations magazine. The readership is made up of top executives in the meeting planning industry who picked Savannah among 26 honorees out of a pool of 3,000 candidates.
"These folks are on the top of their profession and demand the very best in facilities and service," said Bob Coffey, general manager of the trade center.<>Marinelli agreed. "Convention and trade show managers constantly remark on the high quality of the center's facilities, staff and service," he said. "Combined with a strong hotel package and our fare-free downtown shuttles, ferries and streetcar, it's a terrific formula for a memorable meeting in Savannah." >
Laurel Humbert, president and CEO of Meeting Resources Unlimited Inc., a meeting resources management company in the Pittsburgh area, is living proof. She had been to Savannah several times to vacation and, when she saw the trade center, realized the city had more to offer.
"I looked at the property and saw Savannah in a new light," she said. "The venue is fabulous, the people at the CVB were great to work with, and the city is so charming and hospitable, I was sold right away."
Fredia Brady, director of sales and marketing for the trade center, gets that kind of reaction all the time.
"I call Savannah an emotional buy," she said. "It's impressive enough on paper, but once you tour the facility and see the city, you're hooked."
So it's no wonder the trade center is poised for one of its best years to date. Fiscal year 2010, which ends June 30, is set to have a total of 112 events and about 65,000 hotel rooms booked.
"We're getting on the radar screens of a lot of meeting planners," Brady said. "A lot of people are high on Savannah."
The facility is the cherry on top of the treat that is Savannah, said Humbert. "I put Savannah right up there with places such as San Diego and Portland as my favorite meeting spots."
She has a smaller meeting planned at the Avia hotel in October and hopes to bring more groups to experience the city's charm.
The combination of modern facilities and old-time charm sets Savannah apart from other destinations, said Marti Barrow, director of the local Tourism Leadership Council.
"Both complement each other," she said. "We're able to allow these groups to get their business done and then have a great place to play."
Bed tax revenue reports for the first quarter of 2010 show the city is poised to get back on track for record-setting seasons.
"We had some good momentum going before the recession," Marinelli said. "And it looks like we're bouncing back nicely."
A river runs through it
For all its attributes, there are times when Savannah falls short for meeting planners.
On more than one occasion, the river was as much a hindrance as a boon to local tourism. Humbert's group was in Savannah during a diesel spill on the Savannah River. That caused officials to shut down the water ferries. Buses were made available, but conventioneers were stuck for hours with nothing to do.
"The plan B didn't kick in as smoothly as it should have," she said. "I didn't get many complaints -- the city really sells itself."
But from a logistics standpoint, it could be a planner's nightmare. Humbert said she knows other meeting planners who won't even look at Savannah for large conventions even though the trade center has the space.
She said they don't like the thought of having such a large physical barrier separating accommodations and activities from meeting space.
That's one of the reasons why there's a big push for more development around the trade center.
"The beauty of what we have now is that the next phase will accelerate the need to expand further," Smith said.
A civic master plan has been drawn for the side of the island facing downtown. And the trade center is the focal point. Another convention-level hotel with about 500 rooms, shopping, restaurants, a museum and other attractions are on tap.
And in the not-too-distant future, the center itself will be ready for an upgrade.
"That's one thing we learned from the Georgia World Congress Center, don't box yourself in," Shay said. He noted that Atlanta's premier exhibition venue has expanded nearly half a dozen times since it was built, and each cycle took a lot of effort to secure and rezone land.
"We have a virtual blank slate, and if we use it wisely, we can continue to do great things," Shay said.
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