MADISON COUNTY could use a good conference center, maybe somewhere along Highland Colony Parkway, and two “task forces” will be discussing how to fund it. Getting a conference center built is one of the goals of the county’s quality of life task force, one of five such groups working on the county’s long-term strategic plan. The groups recently presented an update of the strategic plan to county leaders, stakeholders and the media at the Butler Snow law firm in Ridgeland. “We have two main goals – young professionals housing, which I think is a major economic opportunity, and a conference center for Madison County,” said Gail Pittman, president of Gail Pittman Inc., and chair of the quality of life committee, at last week’s meeting. With funding from the Madison County Board of Supervisors, the Madison County Economic Development Authority (MCEDA), and private businesses, the quality of life group hired Johnson Consulting out of Chicago to conduct a feasibility study for a conference center in the county. What Johnson found, through “lengthy” interviews with Madison County’s largest companies, Pittman said, was that such a facility was indeed needed. Proposed specs for the center are 60,000 square feet including 25,000 square feet of space for exhibitions, ballrooms and meeting rooms – and a 200-room hotel attached. Johnson recommended locating the complex near existing hotels, perhaps on Highland Colony Parkway near the Renaissance and Township developments. “But we don’t say it necessarily has to be exactly there,” Pittman told the Sun. “There may be other people who want to look at other areas.”
JAN COLLINS, executive director of the Madison County Business League, said county leaders want to distinguish the possible conference center from the Jackson Convention Complex, which opened in 2009 and still doesn’t have a hotel. In addition, a public-private partnership would likely pay for the Madison County facility, while revenues from a tax increase and bond issue paid for the one in Jackson. And the Madison County center would be smaller: the Jackson facility has 113,000 square feet of exhibit space. Johnson’s study indicates that even after 10 years, expenses would be nearly $150,000 more than revenues for the proposed facility. However, Pittman pointed to the projected economic impact, which would more than “make up” that loss. According to the study, in year 10 of the center’s existence, it would still be operating at a net loss of $146,000 but would have an economic impact of more than $16 million in direct spending by convention-goers in the area. Pittman said the county has plenty of large companies who would use the facility, like C Spire and Nissan. “Why would there not be a national gathering for Nissan here? This is their largest plant [in the United States],” she said, adding that several companies told Johnson they would use a conference center if one existed in Madison County. Nearly half of the events held at the center would be corporate, according to the study, available at http://mctheroadahead.com/QualityofLife.aspx.
RIGHT NOW if a gathering in Madison County requires more than 250 people, “it’s a problem,” Pittman said. “We use the [Mississippi] Craft Center, and we try to use as much as we can [in Madison County]. [For bigger events] we use the [Jackson] Country Club, which is a great and lovely facility but has its limitations, and we have to go to the Hilton [on County Line Road], which is also not in Madison County.” As for the hotel that would be attached to the center, 200 rooms might sound like a lot, but it’s really not, she said. “So many times, when there are large conferences, people have to go to other hotels [besides the one at the conference center]. So it gives the [nearby] restaurants more opportunities. It gives the shopping [in the area] more opportunities.” As part of the feasibility study, Johnson looked at convention centers in other cities in the Southeast. Hattiesburg and Chattanooga have facilities that are comparable to what Madison County wants, Pittman said. “What we envision would be more upscale than the Hattiesburg facility, not that it’s not great, but maybe not as fancy as the Chattanooga one. You really don’t know.” Chattanooga most closely matches the Jackson metro area in terms of population and income: the Chattanooga area has about 542,000 people with a median household income of $44,000, while the Jackson metro has 554,000 people with a median house-hold income of $48,000. Also, the Chattanooga Hotel and Conference Center has just over 23,000 square feet of exhibit space, whereas Madison County wants 25,000.
AFTER THE quality of life and economic diversification task forces discuss possible funding mechanisms for the conference center, another meeting will happen, Pittman said – this one with Johnson, elected officials and other stakeholders, and possible developers. With many convention complexes, the convention center itself is public while a private developer owns the hotel, she said. But it is still unclear who would fund the Madison County facility, and how. “We would love it if the board of supervisors could just pass $10 million over to us, but I doubt that will happen,” she said with a laugh. “We’ll see where [the second meeting] goes. And then politics will come in, which always makes it a completely different journey, and it’s always so interesting.” While Pittman and others would like to see work start on the conference center in a couple of years, “things like this don’t move at a rapid speed. When you deal with public-private kind of situations, everybody has to have time to discuss it.”
By KATIE EUBANKS