City again seeks convention center hotel

Published 12:14 pm Thursday, May 24, 2012

City officials have renewed calls for a hotel adjacent to the Vicksburg Convention Center.

Mayor Paul Winfield and North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield told representatives for VenuWorks, the company that operates the center and Vicksburg Auditorium, that any center expansion needs to include a hotel. VenuWorks is doing a feasibility study on expanding the center.

“We have found that our convention center has missed opportunities for conventions and to keep conventions because we didn’t have a hotel,” Winfield said Wednesday after he and Mayfield, City Clerk Walter Obsorne and City Attorney Lee Thames met with Sharon Cummins, director of planning and development for Iowa-based VenuWorks, her husband, Ron Cummins, VenuWorks’ national director of safety and security, and convention center Executive Director Troy Thorn.

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“You can go any direction (to expand) the current facility, and regardless of what you do to the building, if you don’t get a hotel, and especially one that is easily accessible, you’ll never get what you want out of this,” Mayfield said. “People travel all over the country. And they take notes and ask, ‘Why can’t I have this at home?’ The public is ready for a hotel here. It’s warranted and needed.”

The feasibility study was a part of the five-year contract VenuWorks signed with the city in October. The study is due Sept. 30.

Winfield said any plans to implement the study’s recommendations would not begin until 2013, when a new administration takes office.

Calls for a hotel date to the late 1990s, when city officials proposed a hotel while the $12.4 million facility was being planned.

Winfield said he envisions a 120- to 150-room hotel by the convention center, adding the size would be determined by the study.

“We are just starting the study,” Sharon Cummins said, adding she and her husband have been talking with different groups in the community, including members of the city’s hospitality industry and Vicksburg Warren School District officials.

Meetings also are planned with The Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, she said.

She said the study will be prepared in-house by VenuWorks, but designs for the proposed expansion will be contracted out to an architect.

In July 1996, before construction began on the center, former center director Larry Gawronski told city officials a hotel was “more critical than ever” for the center’s success. Gawronski left Vicksburg in December to accept a similar position managing the Bridge View Center in Ottumwa, Iowa.

The city board in 1996 hired Perez, Ernst and Farnet, the company monitoring the convention center’s construction, to begin a study for a hotel near the center.

In June 1997, the board selected the Vicksburg Convention Center Hotel Group LLC, a consortium of hotel owners from Louisiana and Texas, to build a hotel on 1.67 acres of city property adjacent to the center. The plan fell through when the group disbanded more than a year later.

A plan in May 1999 to renovate the Walnut Towers, a former home for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at South and Walnut streets into a hotel was presented by Baton Rouge architect Franklin Lassiter. The proposed 160-room hotel was to be managed by Clarion Hotels. That plan also failed.

Security at the convention center was not discussed at the meeting. Thorn said those issues would be discussed in the feasibility study.

He said, however, that security guidelines have been set for future convention center events in the wake of a shot being fired inside the center during a private party at the center.

He said convention center officials will work with police and event promoters to determine security procedures that could include bag searches, magnetic wands, or pat-down searches of guests attending events.