Chamber of Commerce Push Toward a New Convention Center
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Go big -- or go home. That's the attitude adopted by members of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, who are pushing for the development of a new 53,000 square foot convention center close to the University of Florida.
If constructed, the facility would be more than twice as big as any existing convention space in Gainesville, something Gainesville caterer Leah Sherer thinks would dramatically improve her bottom line.
"If we're going to cater, and we're going to come in at 5 a.m. to start cooking, we might as well be cooking for 2,000 people than 20 or 200," said Sherer.
Because much of her business depends on corporate events, she sees a whole lot of potential in the new convention center planned for Gainesville's west side.
"I do believe that the convention center would have a huge impact on the revenue of my business. I mean, just one event a week with 2500 people would change the bottom line immediately," said Sherer.
Members of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce agree, which is why they're pushing hard for the development of a new 53,000 square foot convention center to be built just blocks away from the UF campus as part of a new mixed-use development off 34th Street.
"It means more people flying into our region, it means more people staying in our hotels," said Adrian Taylor, vice president of regional initiatives for the Chamber. "Our region loses opportunity to even bid, or to host, conferences that we have, or we would have, strategic advantage in hosting."
Taylor says the new center -- which would be more than double the size of any existing convention space in Gainesville -- would allow the city to host events that in the past, have gone elsewhere.
"There are local companies, that started here, are growing here, but because they have national sales teams, they can no longer have staff come back to their home base. They now have conferences in Orlando and Tampa," said Taylor.
But in order to make the facility a reality, officials say they'll need to obtain funding from either the city or the county.
"Public investment is necessary for it, because of the size, and because of the fact that it will have a public benefit," said Taylor.
Taylor says any potential investments could be offset by an estimated $75 million in increased tax revenues over a 10 year period.
But not everyone sees it that way. Roger Blair -- chair of the UF economics department -- is skeptical of the project's financial viability because he says Gainesville, unlike Orlando, is not a natural location to host large conventions.
"This is something that sounds good, but just might not pan out," said Blair. "If you think about Orlando, they've got theme parks, they've got Universal Studios, they've got Disney."
He worries this project could be heading down a similar path to that of Newberry's Nations Ballpark -- in which the county used money from its bed tax to partially fund the construction of the facility.
"In the planning process, sort of the theme was that if we build this great facility, people are going to come from all over the place to hold their baseball tournaments there. That's going to provide some economic benefit. That didn't happen," said Blair.
Just last week, the city of Newberry began the process of searching for a new manager of the park after it failed to attract the number of tournaments many hoped it would.
Other businesses with convention space question whether the demand for such a large convention space is really there.
Tony Trusty, general manager of the UF Hilton, says the proposed center -- which would be able to host events with as many as 3,000 people -- could end up costing taxpayers more in the long-run.
"In our hotel last year, we only had 8 conferences that were above 200 people. So once you get above that 200 person mark, the demand kind of wains," said Trusty. "If we have the conference center, one of the things that we need to be concerned about are the operating costs once it is built. You're going to need a sales staff, you're going to need to turn the lights on."
Trusty is against the project -- which would sit less than a half-mile away from his hotel. He fears it could end up taking business away from other hotels with convention space, like his own.
But those in favor of the project say that won't be the case.
"I do not see an opportunity in cannibalizing other existing facilities. I only see it complimenting other facilities," said Taylor.
Taylor says the Chamber views this as more of an economic catalyst rather than a competitor.
To date, the Chamber has received letters of support for the project from the Gainesville Regional Airport Authority, the Alachua County Rural Concerns Committee and Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy.
Organizers are expected to approach either the city or county about funding as early as this summer.
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