Brochure shows off convention center’s wares

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Norman Ford holds the Vicksburg Convention Center’s new promotional brochure outside the convention center. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

Complete with glossy photos and a brand-new logo, the Vicksburg Convention Center’s long-awaited promotional brochure is a full-color mile marker showing how far the center has come since a leadership crisis in May.

At the same time, elected officials have been moving toward handing the center’s reins over to a private company, at the urging of local business leaders and North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young.

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In less than four months, Norman Ford, a former physics teacher at St. Aloysius High School, has taken the helm and begun an aggressive marketing campaign, including spending $50,000 on an advertising blitz.

Ford, who served as operations manager at the $12 million convention center until former director Patricia Cato quit unexpectedly, has argued for local management and points to the successes of the last few months as Exhibit A.

“I think, rightly or wrongly, they were fed up with the way things were going the past few years,” Ford said. “Our staff has worked really hard to show that they can do the job without a management company.”

The brochure, promised since the center opened in 1998, spent the better part of two years in various draft forms under Cato before going to the printer last week.

Sales manager Robert Gallert, together with Lisa Nosser of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, booked 15 events into the convention center in the last two months, bringing a combined 4,000 people from out of town into the city, with a rough economic impact of $1 million.

While Cato was often criticized for basically ignoring the convention center’s six-figure marketing budget, Ford has bought advertising in magazines targeted toward meeting planners and association executives and plans to shoot a television commercial shortly to air on local access cable in neighboring states.

Next year’s marketing budget is $120,000, “and we’re going to spend it all,” he said.

But he may not get the chance. The convention center, which drained $688,320 from the city’s general operating fund last year, is a prime candidate for private management, some say.

“I believe far and away that the consensus of the advisory board (private management) would be the way to go,” said Bobby Bailess, a local attorney and member of the VCC advisory board.

“The main thing you get with a private management company is expertise, and it’s expertise that we’ve been missing at the convention center for the past three years,” Bailess said.

A company that has managed other convention centers, has a proven track record and is willing to work for fees heavily weighed toward incentives for performance can help turn around lackluster financial figures, he said.

“Norman has done a tremendous job filling in as interim director, and I hope that whoever gets the contract continues to use Norman,” Bailess said. “But he doesn’t have a big background in convention center management.”

Ford’s first thoughts of the convention center business came when the center’s first director, Larry Gawronski, stepped down in 1997. Before that, his only experience was helping with the Miss Mississippi Pageant.

Ford, still teaching high school physics, threw his hat in the ring but was passed over in favor of Cato. Later, when the operations manager position came open, he left teaching and became Cato’s lieutenant.

He wasn’t actively looking for a job at the time, he said. But he had followed the debate over whether to build the center and how to fund it, he wanted to see his hometown succeed, and he thought he could make a contribution.

Now, he said, it’s the variety and constant flux that keeps the job exciting. Boxing, wrestling, dance recitals, weddings and trade shows can all occupy the same space within a month.

“It’s always something different, and the staff does whatever it takes to get the event together,” Ford said. “It’s always exciting watching the building take on a totally different shape.”

While stressing that he doesn’t mind working for a management company, he points out new initiatives in everything from cable television marketing to new uniform shirts and ballpoint pens as evidence that the center is finally on a roll, on its own.

But the city unanimously voted to request proposals from private firms several months ago, and Alderman Young, who oversees the center, has repeatedly expressed her preference for private management.

Bailess said he feels that when proposals come in during the next few weeks, the city will likely choose the best one and accept it.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” Bailess said. “We just need a little guidance to get there.”