Beaufort News

Beaufort Chamber revives push for conference center

In a renewed push to build a conference center in northern Beaufort County, the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce and its Visitor and Convention Bureau have formed a committee to study the issue and plan a community forum to let residents weigh in on its location and size.

The committee will send requests for proposals today to local architects and engineers who could lead the public meeting in late April, committee chairman D.J. Desai said.

It's been more than five years since local officials began seriously studying the feasibility and economic impact of a 25,000- to 50,000-square-foot center that would play host to events like conferences, Marine Corps reunions, weddings and high school graduations, officials said.

"We know the demand is there because we get requests all the time that we cannot fill," Desai said. "We lose a lot of weddings and other events to different places."

Chamber president and CEO Carlotta Ungaro said the venue would be scaled to reflect the size of events it is intended to attract and intentionally is being called a "conference center," not a "convention center."

The committee is still in preliminary talks about how the venue would be funded, Desai said. Ungaro said the organization believes a publicly funded, privately managed model would work best. Funding also could come partly from private sources, Desai said.

After the committee gets community input, it will present its findings to the chamber and VCB boards. The chamber and VCB would then likely begin lobbying Beaufort County and the city of Beaufort for their support, Ungaro said

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said he's interested in hearing more but would want to see a market study showing if "there's a rational argument for a meeting space larger than we already have."

The Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites in Beaufort offers the largest gathering space now, Ungaro said, with a 5,000-square-foot meeting area. The space can accommodate a 250-person dinner but has no additional room for breakout sessions, Ungaro said. Some meeting spaces on local military bases are larger but less accessible, Ungaro said.

In 2005, then-Mayor Bill Rauch and chamber officials began gauging the need for a conference center.

A study commissioned by the chamber in 2005 showed a 25,000-square-foot meeting center in Beaufort would create at least 70 jobs and add $97,000 to the city's annual tax collections on retail sales, food, lodging and entertainment. Tourists drawn by the center would spend $3.3 million to $6.4 million a year in Beaufort, the study projected.

The study, conducted by Georgia Southern University's Bureau of Business Research and Economic Development, estimated the center would cost $10 million to build.

While dated, the figures provide some indication of the economic impact a center could have on the region, Ungaro said.

In 2006, Rauch introduced the idea of turning the Beaufort Housing Authority's Marsh Pointe affordable-housing complex into a combined conference center and theater. Plans for the complex faded when no one was willing to fund it, Ungaro said.