Officials hit trail in search of center’s future direction

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 30, 2000

On a fact-finding mission to a Memphis, Tenn., convention facility this week, North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young queried the center’s employees while local Trustmark President Jerry Hall inspected the bathroom floors.

Along with the mayor and other city officials, they quizzed the mayor of Memphis and grilled officials with SMG Corp., all in an effort to gather information about the best future course for Vicksburg’s own convention center.

“The main thing I took away from this was we are definitely going in the right direction,” said Hall, a member of the Vicksburg facility’s advisory board.

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The Board of Mayor and Aldermen, with the support of the advisory board, voted this summer to request proposals from private management companies to run the Vicksburg Convention Center, which has lagged behind financial expectations since it was opened in 1997.

The board received two proposals on Oct. 10, one from SMG Corp., the largest such company in the nation, and one from Compass Facility Management, which employs former Vicksburg Convention Center Director Larry Gawronski.

“Whichever one we choose will be the right decision,” Hall said. “The biggest difference between the two is that (SMG Corp.) is a great big group, and we would be the smallest facility in their organization.”

Young said there were many similarities between Memphis, which ran its convention center publicly for years before switching to private management in 1994, and Vicksburg.

“In the beginning, they were like we are now, trying to do it themselves,” she said. “They congratulated us for seeing the answer a lot sooner than they did.”

Six years ago, Memphis turned to private management because its convention center was buried under unpaid bills, Young said.

The Vicksburg Convention Center, designed to be funded by a 2 percent tourism tax, is drawing about $400,000 this year from the city’s general operating fund to get its own bills paid.

Hall pointed out that although the Cook Center in Memphis lives within tax receipts from that city’s tourism tax, “be assured that they are not operating at a profit.”

While the center takes in rental and catering fees to defer expenses, its goal is only to break even between expenses and tax collections, he said. “We need to be realistic if we ever think this thing is going to stand on its own.”

Norman Ford, interim director of the Vicksburg Convention Center, said he was impressed with the way the convention centers within a management company could work together. For instance, he said, when the Memphis facility lost its finance director, experts were flown in from other cities to fill the gap until a new director was hired.

Local officials will fly to Davenport, Iowa, next month to examine a facility run by Compass Facility Management. Officials are still reviewing the two proposals, and a decision is not expected for several months.