When the National Corvette Restorers Society was looking for a place for its 2019 annual meeting, board members wanted to come to South Carolina. Columbia caught their meeting planner’s eye.
The Capital City’s growing downtown and exploding restaurant, bar and microbrewery market would make it a new and fresh destination for the organization’s 800 or so attendees. The planner also liked the brand new Spirit Communications minor league baseball park, the revitalized Main Street and the additional attractions at Riverbanks Zoo and the State Museum.
But there was a problem. The tiny exhibition space at Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center – at 23,700 square feet, the smallest in the state by half – didn’t have room to display all 90 of their sports cars. So the group is going to Greenville instead.
“We have lost three large conventions in the past 10 days due to our space limitations,” Bill Ellen, president and chief executive of the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism, said Friday. “One needed exhibit space for 90 Corvettes. Another (Delta Sigma Theta) needed a seated dinner for 2,600 guests. And we lost the third group (National Baptist Convention USA’s board meeting) because we had to bid using three different venues.
“We lost all three to other Southeastern destinations,” he said.
With more entertainment and shopping options in the Vista, stronger tourist draws region-wide and the overall growth of downtown, it’s time to expand the 12-year-old convention center, downtown boosters, tourism professionals and meeting planners say.
“This is something we should have been working on for several years,” said Fred Delk, executive director of the Columbia Development Corp., which encourages and guides growth in the Vista and other areas of downtown.
Mayor Steve Benjamin, who advocated expansion in this year’s State of the City speech, said Columbia is gaining traction among meeting planners, but as a result, is losing more conventions and meetings because the convention center is too small.
“I believe this expansion can be done,” he said. “This should be a priority. We have to find ways to harness this growth in the Vista.”
A reluctant union
The convention center opened in 2004. It was pushed by former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and ramrodded by Bill Dukes, owner of the landmark Blue Marlin restaurant, which sits a block from the center.
The convention center’s birth was the result of a reluctant union. A regional board was forged by Coble and Dukes, and an uneasy pact was struck between the city of Columbia, Richland County and Lexington County – three entities not known for working together.
Even Richland School District 1 had to sign off on a special tax district that was formed to help fund the building.
But to forge the alliance, especially with a skittish Lexington County Council, some of whose members didn’t see a convention center in Columbia as being much benefit to them, the project was kept small, with an expansion envisioned for the future.
That never happened, and today, the center’s exhibition space is dwarfed by that of Greenville, which boasts 280,000 square feet. Even tiny Athens, Ga., which isn’t even seen as a competitor with Columbia for conventions, has twice as much exhibition space at 56,000 square feet.
“We were too small the day we opened,” said Sarah Britt, the convention center’s director of sales.
And the Vista itself is different today.
In 2004, the arts and entertainment district hosted about 20 bars and restaurants and one hotel, Delk said. Today it has about 90 bars and restaurants and will soon have eight hotels.
“Clearly, we need a larger space for conventions,” he said.
City-focused, benefiting the region
There has been talk of expansion in the past.
The center was built with a non-load bearing wall facing Colonial Life Arena. The parking lot between the two venues would provide another 75,000 square feet of exhibit space adjacent to the existing 23,700.
That would result in a still small, but respectable exhibition hall.
The issue is funding. Estimates vary widely from $20 million to $40 million. And more help from Lexington County, and perhaps even Richland County, is unlikely because in six years the original bonds will be paid off and ownership of the building reverts solely to the city of Columbia.
Lexington County, which has its own convention authority – the Capital City/Lake Murray Regional Tourism Board – likely won’t participate. Officials there have longed dreamed of their own facility at Lake Murray.
“Lexington County probably will not” assist in funding an expansion, said Sammy Hendrix, Lexington County’s representative on the Midlands convention authority board and its vice chairman. “I’m pretty sure they would not.”
Benjamin was more optimistic.
“It needs to be city-focused but benefit the whole region,” he said of the expansion. “We need more space and we need a regional commitment to make that happen.”
The mayor said he needs firmer estimates and more solid plans before going forward. And he said the city would have to be “creative” in funding it, using a combination of general funds and hospitality and accommodations taxes.
“I’m committed to make it a priority,” Benjamin said.
‘They will come’
Another issue is having enough hotel rooms to house greater numbers of conventioneers. The entire downtown area has 12 hotels providing 1,634 rooms. A 13th – the Aloft boutique hotel – is under construction.
But most of those are limited-service hotels with about 120 rooms.
The only full-service hotels are the Columbia Marriott, with 300 rooms, and the Sheraton Columbia Downtown with 134 rooms – both on Main Street several blocks away from the convention center – and the Hilton Columbia Center, a half block from the convention center.
The Hilton was envisioned as the convention center’s companion hotel. But today the hotel doesn’t block rooms for conventions – it’s usually full with government, sports and tourist guests at rates that can reach $300 to $400 a night.
And the land that was to be used for the Hilton’s expansion to a true convention center hotel – the old Damon’s steak house location between the hotel and the center – is now home to the University of South Carolina’s Alumni Center, which divides the Hilton from the convention center and often competes with it for bookings.
“We need a 400-room, full-service hotel next to the convention center,” said Jason Outman, executive director of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
However, John Durst, a former Midland convention authority chairman and now president and chief executive of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said developers, already interested in a growing downtown Columbia, would be eager to capitalize on bigger conventions.
“I am very confident that if signs begin to point in that direction (expansion) there would be additional investment made by hoteliers,” he said. “If you build it, they will come.”
Convention Center Attendance
Here are the attendance figures for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center each year since it opened.
2004 – 33,409
2005 – 132,208
2006 – 121,027
2007 – 156,723
2008 – 248,569
2009 – 166,748
2010 – 151,571
2011 – 165,699
2012 – 199,654
2013 – 161,677
2014 – 336,963*
2015 – 276,345
Total – 2,150,593
*Numbers swelled by the FLW bass fishing tournament held at Lake Murray, which also used Colonial Life Arena and the convention center
SOURCE: Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism
For convention centers, size matters
Columbia has the smallest convention center in South Carolina. The center is also the smallest among its competitors in the Southeast. Here’s a comparison:
▪ Charlotte – 280,000 square feet of exhibit space; 125,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Greenville – 280,000 square feet of exhibit space; 90,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Birmingham, Ala. – 282,000 square feet of exhibit space; 175,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Raleigh, N.C. – 150,000 square feet of exhibit space; 65,218 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Chattanooga, Tenn. – 100,800 square feet of exhibit space; 43,940 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Myrtle Beach – 100,800 square feet of exhibit space; 31,140 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Savannah, Ga. – 100,000 square feet of exhibit space; 80,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Charleston – 77,000 square feet of exhibit space; 73,000 square feet of ballroom and meeting space
▪ Athens, Ga. – 56,000 square feet of exhibit space; 48,540 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Augusta, Ga. – 37,658 square feet of exhibit space; 24,561 square feet of meeting and ballroom space
▪ Columbia – 23,700 square feet of exhibit space; 33,400 square feet of ballroom and meeting space
SOURCE: Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism