A new conference center in downtown Greenville makes the most sense in terms of economic development for the area, and it’s where attendees want to be, according to the mayor.
Greenville Mayor Knox White discussed the possibility of a new downtown conference center to maintain attractiveness in bringing outside professional organizations into downtown at a State of the City/State of the County event hosted by the Greenville Chamber on Friday.
White made it clear at the public event that the heart of Greenville makes the most sense as the location for a conference center, to be a venue for some of the ballroom events currently held at the Greenville Convention Center.
“This is an issue that has been around for a long time but is an example of city and county cooperation efforts,” said White. “We do need Greenville’s conference center to be in downtown. People understand this is where hotels are, restaurants are. One of the big differentiators between this idea and the past, we want a strong nexus between our economic development strategies and who we bring to Greenville through the conference center. The problem with the convention center we have now is it isn’t near anything.”
White said right now Greenville isn’t even on the “list” of choices for some professional organizations in sectors that boost economic development — for example, automotive manufacturing — because they want a hotel and conference center downtown.
Currently, where this project stands, White said, is the city has one site ready that had been donated on the river next to the Embassy Suites downtown by developers Phil Hughes and Bo Aughtry.
Instead of a stand-alone conference center, he added, they are looking at the Hyatt Regency project from the 1980s for inspiration on what the downtown Greenville conference center could be.
“What we really need in Greenville to get the scale right, to do it right, is a conference center hotel,” said White. “And let it be led by the private sector. It’s a working concept that the existing convention center would remain. The county has expressed interest in buying it.”
White clarified that the downtown conference center concept being discussed will not take place of the current Greenville Convention Center off Pleasantburg Drive.
“We want that to remain for our locals, our home-grown shows like garden show and boat show,” he added.
What’s a main difference between a privately owned hotel concept and a stand-alone conference center?
The back of house expenses, said White, which is where a lot of the expenses come from when operating a convention center.
“Under this concept, the public sector would not pay for these types of expenses,” he added.
This kind of hotel conference center could only happen with a mix of existing city funds, partnership with the county, and the city’s hospitality taxes.
“So, it’s kind of moving slowly, but that’s OK,” said White. “With the construction costs being what it is, it will give us time to really think this through and with more parties, I think it will be a good process.”
Greenville County Council Chairman Dan Tripp said county talks of purchasing the convention center has been on the back burner with the new redevelopment of the county’s administrative building.
“There is a little bit of weariness on big projects with council, but I’m not saying it’s not on the table,” said Tripp. “But generally speaking, the concept that I’m familiar with is something that is unique, and I can find a way to support it but will cross that bridge when we come to it.”