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Iowa firm chosen to operate Vicksburg Convention Center

From left, Vicksburg Convention Center director Norman Ford and Compass employees Larry Gawronski and Steven Peters listen as the bid for the Iowa firm to take over management of the Vicksburg Convention Center is read aloud Wednesday. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[01/11/01] The Iowa firm that employs the Vicksburg Convention Center’s first executive director will be hired to manage the facility here.

Compass Facility Management Inc., based in Ames, Iowa, won out over SMG Corp. The city and Compass will now move on to ironing out the specifics of a contract, including costs, city officials said.

“We were impressed with both groups, but Compass has a record of working with communities similar to ours,” Mayor Robert Walker said.

Compass is the contract manager for six facilities in the Midwest, including one in Davenport, Iowa, that city officials visited during the selection process.

SMG, a larger company, mainly manages facilities in metropolitan areas, including Memphis.

Larry Gawronski, the Vicksburg Convention Center’s first executive director, left shortly after the downtown center here opened in 1997 to head a larger facility in Nebraska. Gawronski is now director of venue development at Compass, and said after Wednesday’s announcement that he was thrilled to work with Vicksburg officials again.

“I’ve been wanting to come back to Vicksburg for so long, and that road led through Compass,” he said. “Now we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Walker said Gawronski’s former employment with the city had nothing to do with the selection of Compass.

“He was not factored into our decision at all,” he said.

Compass president Steven Peters, who was also at Wednesday’s meeting, said facilities in smaller cities face unique challenges when trying to bring in conventions and major events.

“We think that it’s a specialty, and we treat it like that,” Peters said.

Costs have not been set. Wednesday’s announcement means only that officials have chosen to negotiate with Compass, and the details of the final agreement have yet to be worked out, officials said.

The decision was made based more on a sense that Compass would be easy to work with and give Vicksburg the attention it deserved than any financial considerations, Walker said.

“The projected numbers we received were not so solid as to be a huge factor,” he said. He added that final cost figures would be determined during the negotiations that will begin soon.

The management contract will give Compass responsibility for marketing and operating the center, including hiring and firing, in exchange for a flat fee along with the possibility of a percentage of the center’s revenue.

Officials are hoping that the expertise of a professional management company will help market the $13 million center and decrease the cost of operating it.

The convention center was intended eventually to be completely funded by a 2 percent tax on hotel nights, restaurant and bar tabs, along with revenue generated by rental, food and beverage fees for events.

In this fiscal year, officials expect income from the center along with the tax to provide about half the facility’s $870,000 budget. The rest will be subsidized by the city’s general fund.

By marketing the center and bringing more events to Vicksburg, city officials hope to boost revenue from the tourism tax while cutting expenses.

Compass has pledged to keep all the center’s employees for a trial period once they take over.

Norman Ford, the executive director, is one of those employees. He has been running the center since Patricia Cato resigned in June, and has made progress in marketing the center, including the creation of a brochure, a television commercial and magazine ads.

Five statewide conferences, including an affordable housing conference attended by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove this week, are scheduled in the facility this month. During times when the center is not being used for major conventions, it is available for smaller gatherings such as business meetings, seminars, wedding receptions, family reunions and banquets.

“Our job is made easier by the fact that Norman has such a rock-solid operation already,” Peters said.

Ford added that he was glad the decision was made so that the process could move forward.

“I look forward to having their guidance,” he said. The company’s connections in the industry will be useful in negotiating contracts and filling staffing vacancies, such as the currently open sales manager position, he said.

In other business, the city:

Awarded a contract for tree cutting to Buckaloo Tree Service.

Awarded contracts for weed control to Jack Ross and Weed Pro LLC.

Approved the purchase of two new patrol cars for the Vicksburg Police Department at a cost of $20,154 each.