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Civic Center to see upgrades

By Megan Workman
Lawrence Pierce
The Charleston Civic Center is an "economic driver" that helps bring in $580 million in tourism business each year in the capital city, but the center needs renovated to "meet the 21st century technological standards," said Jama Jarrett, vice president of office operations and communications at the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Lawrence Pierce John Robertson, general manager of the Charleston Civic Center, said many of the facility's mechanical systems are 50 years old and have "outlived their life." The gray building seen here houses the outdated heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.
Lawrence Pierce The Civic Center's kitchen is not located near many meeting spaces so employees pushing carts of foods to specific rooms are seen in public corridors throughout the day. A new kitchen would provide a more behind-the-scenes atmosphere for catering.
Lawrence Pierce The Charleston Civic Center's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system is made up of antiquated, full-building boilers that are not energy efficient and waste money.

Proposed city budget

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than one million people attend nearly 4,000 events and functions at the Charleston Civic Center every year, but those numbers could be even higher if the facility had more space and style, civic center General Manager John Robertson said.

The center -- which was built in 1958 and renovated more than 30 years ago -- has to be updated and expanded to meet industry demands, he said.

Civic Center officials have tried to find ways to fix the facility for at least seven years, he said. The problem has been finding the right resources to fund the "big picture things."

On Tuesday, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones announced plans to spend $45 to $60 million in renovations to improve the civic center.

Jones said he wants to eliminate and reduce some business and occupation taxes on manufacturing in the city, and raise sales taxes by 0.5 percent. The tax changes would have the potential to generate $3.57 million a year, Jones said.

In the past decade, public spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, according to DesignIntelligence, a bi-monthly report issued by the Design Futures Council.

The renovations would include a new 20,000-square-foot ballroom, 5,000 square feet of additional meeting space, kitchen renovations, more restrooms and enhancements to the exterior's appearance. New lighting, sound systems and an energy-efficient, climate control heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system are also in the works.

"The industry has changed, the expectations of meeting planners has changed and in order for us to compete and meet the demands of meeting planners, we've got to make some adjustments," Robertson said. "We've got to do some expansion and make some changes to the physical structure to allow us to be successful when we try to compete for that business."

Charleston has lost an estimated $28 million in business because the Charleston Civic Center can't accommodate meeting planners' needs, said Jama Jarrett, vice president of office operations and communications at the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Convention centers aren't used as just musical arenas anymore, Jarrett said. Jarrett said the CVB has tried to bring nontraditional events, such as the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America, but can't because of limited space at the civic center.  

"These groups are looking for particulars, such as the size of the convention center, seating, how accommodating it is to the group and throughout the years we have lost particular pieces of business because the civic center wasn't big enough," Jarrett said. "We've had to turn down business or not approach [them] simply because they have an 'x' number of attendees and we just don't have the space for them."

Since 1990, convention space in the U.S. has increased by more than 50 percent, according to DesignIntelligence.

Space is the number-one criterion for meeting planners, Jarrett said.

"We have to stay competitive. We compete with cities like Greensboro, N.C., and if I'm a meeting planner looking at Charleston and Greensboro, if Charleston can't give me the facility space I need, then I'm not going to choose Charleston," Jarrett said.

Also, the civic center needs more space to satisfy simultaneous schedules, Robertson said.

While the Grand Hall is 52,000 square feet, that's still not big enough to host both a large event and an eating area, he said. The new ballroom would solve this problem.

"Because we don't have an eating space large enough to satisfy conventions, we have to be very creative in scheduling because if we require the Grand Hall for the exhibit space, then we can't do a large banquet simultaneously," Robertson said.

When the center does serve food to its meeting spaces, employees have to push carts of food throughout public corridors because of the kitchen's location, Robertson said. A new kitchen would fix that, he said.

Robertson said the meetings and conventions the civic center hosts are very important because they are generally multi-day events.

The more time people spend in Charleston, the more money they spend, he said. They become "residents of our city for several days," he said.

"The community recognizes the importance of bringing in outsiders and their money," Robertson said. "[Visitors] have an economic impact on their community if people are staying in hotels, eating at the restaurants and shopping in the stores. They're producing jobs."

Convention centers like the civic center are economic engines for cities, Jarrett said.

Tourism, by way of attracting visitors, conventions and special events, brings in an estimated $580 million to Charleston, according to the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A revitalized center will attract new meetings, which will bring even more demand to Charleston, said Kristen Clemens, vice president of marketing and communications for Destination Marketing Association International.

"If the civic center is downtown and you renovate the center, which leads to more meetings and conferences, you're bringing more people to your downtown and it can really revitalize an area," she said. "It's pumping money into that district."

Robertson said he and other officials still have to choose an architect and go through different designs before any definite decisions are made.

"We aren't going to see anything happen for at least a year," he said.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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