USC alumni center opening in Vista

ashain@thestate.comJune 21, 2012 

When the University of South Carolina’s new $30 million alumni center opens in late 2014, the school’s 260,000 graduates will not only have a place to meet – the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center will get extra space that leaders have sought for years.

USC’s alumni association closed a $1.1 million deal this week for the site of the former Damon’s restaurant at Senate and Lincoln streets – across from the convention center.

In addition to housing 20 alumni staff members, the 60,000 square-foot building will include a 500-seat ballroom, a 125-seat auditorium and more than 10 meeting and conference rooms. The alumni center also will have two gardens – including one on its rooftop – to use for events or weddings.

The alumni association expects to bring many of its 200 events now spread across Columbia to the new center, said Lee Bussell, president of the USC Alumni Association.

The convention center will use the meeting areas when USC is not.

USC alumni won’t have to worry about cooking or serving food. The convention center authority is negotiating a contract with the alumni association to manage meeting areas and provide food service, said Ric Luber, chief executive of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports & Tourism.

The USC alumni center joins a new 130-room Hyatt hotel coming to Gervais Street in providing more space for convention business in Columbia.

With the alumni building, the convention center will add about 25 percent more usable space and compete for larger gatherings. The convention center is maxed at events that attract 3,000 people, Luber said.

In addition to the extra ballroom, the alumni center’s auditorium with theater seating will be a draw for groups because few convention centers have them, he said.

A tunnel, started when the convention center was constructed in 2004, will be dug under Lincoln Street to connect with the alumni center. The tunnel’s cost will be covered by $1.7 million remaining from bonds issued to build the center, Luber said.

The city of Columbia bought the property that included a Damon’s restaurant in 2004 with the convention center expansion in mind, city manager Steve Gantt said. The restaurant closed two years ago, but the convention center did not have the money to expand.

The alumni association building was slated for a site at Greene and Assembly streets before convention center officials approached alumni officials about locating near the area’s main visitors hub, Bussell said.

They looked at the parking lot between the convention center and Colonial Life Arena before settling on the Damon’s site. The $1.1 million purchase price paid to the city is about $170,000 more than the site’s assessed value, according to property records.

“We wanted to be where people were,” Bussell said.

The association plans to build a showcase that will give the alumni center its first permanent home, Bussell said.

The alumni center has moved at least four times since leaving a location near the Capstone dorm in 1999. Operations are split now between two buildings two blocks apart near Gervais and Pickens streets.

Costs of the new alumni center will be covered with donations, including some being collected as part of USC’s $1 billion fundraising campaign, Bussell said.

The center will include high-tech museum-like displays “to tell the story of USC,” Bussell said. Those displays also will be accessible to convention visitors – exposing more people to the school.

The new center also will offer career counseling, continuing education and job placement – something requested by younger alumni who are more likely to change jobs, Bussell said.

Construction of the center is expected to start in about a year.
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Note: This version corrects the number of USC alumni to 260,000.

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