VenuWorks to convention center: You must expand

Published 11:18 am Thursday, October 25, 2012

VenuWorks, the company hired by the City of Vicksburg to manage the Vicksburg Convention Center, wants the city to increase the center’s space by more than 110,000 square feet so it can attract more events.

The cost would be $28.12 million to $31.39 million, VenuWorks said in a feasibility study handed to convention center advisory board members Wednesday.

VenuWorks, based in Ames, Iowa, has held the city contract to manage the center on Mulberry Street and the Vicksburg Auditorium on Monroe Street since 2001.

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Sharon Cummins, VenuWorks national director of planning and development, said city officials also should consider making other changes so the center can keep its current clients and attract new ones.

“The needs of meeting planners have changed in the 15 years since this center opened,” she said after the meeting. “They want to reduce the amount of travel people have to go between their hotel and the event. They want technology. A lot of work at conventions is done online, and a center has to be able to provide that. They want other activities people can do during breaks and after the meetings.

“There are some clients who have maxed out their space at the center. Where are they to go?” she asked.

Convention center executive director Troy Thorn said the expansion would allow the center to attract more nationally known entertainment because of increased seating. He declined to name acts that might be attracted.

“It will bring ticket prices down because more seats will be available,” he said. “Our seating will be closer to Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson, which attracts international and national performers. But the bottom line is that we’ll have the opportunity to attract more conventions and trade shows, and they will bring in the revenue that will enable us to take the risks to bring in nationally known acts.”

The convention center currently has 25,557 square feet for events. The exhibit hall on the lower level, where concerts and shows are held, totals about 17,050 square feet, including storage and mechanical rooms, and can accommodate 1,800 seats for concerts and other programs. The proposed expansion would increase the seating capacity to 3,100.

A total of 8,555 square feet currently is available for meetings in separate meeting rooms. That would be expanded to 18,000 square feet.

Cummins said the study examined the center’s current business and alternatives to make it more competitive in attracting conventions, concerts and events to Vicksburg.

She said VenuWorks officials met with city residents and with meeting and event- planners over four months to reach the recommendations in the report.

“We talked to people and we did an online poll,” she said. “We talked with people who used the center and those who did not so we could get a balanced view of what was needed.”

Although a 150-room hotel for the center was mentioned in the reports, Cummins said it was not discussed in detail because the report was concerned only with the center’s expansion. The construction and location of a hotel for the center would have to be discussed by city officials, she said.

The expansion would total 111,813 square feet and include larger exhibit spaces and meeting rooms, increased seating for concerts, additional banquet space and a ballroom.

JH&H representative Randall Lewis did not have a projected time line for the project, but said it would take more than a year. He said the convention center would not have to close during the expansion. JH&H, which made the center’s original designs, prepared the proposed expansion plans for the study.

Mayor Paul Winfield said after the meeting the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the advisory board will discuss the proposed expansion.

“I think the bigger picture is that while we need to be cautiously optimistic about future growth in Vicksburg, we need to realize that we can’t sit back and wait for things to happen,” he said. “We have to put forth some energy and work toward economic development.”

He said he would favor using general obligation bonds to fund the expansion, but said officials would have to examine the project further, including public hearings, before decisions are made.