Study to test waters for new local conference center
The Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau is exploring the possibility of bringing a conference or convention center to the region.
The CACVB’s board in January approved up to $30,000 in funding for a feasibility study to be completed in fiscal year 2018. A request for proposals was issued by the city of Charlottesville last week.
“At this juncture, we would like to determine, with the growth that is going on, is Charlottesville ready for this?” said Kurt Burkhart, executive director of the CACVB. “We won’t know that until the feasibility study is done.”
Burkhart said he has no idea at this point as to where a new conference or convention center would be located.
The CACVB is the official destination marketing organization for Charlottesville and Albemarle County. While it functions as a department of the city, it’s funded by both municipalities through revenue from the transient occupancy tax.
The CACVB’s current strategic plan calls for the bureau to “continue efforts to support a group meeting facility in Charlottesville.”
“There is not an agenda to build [the center],” Burkhart said. “There is no advocacy on our end. We want to learn more and see who is interested. … We are just cracking the door open.”
The RFP says the three largest conference hotels in Albemarle and Charlottesville — the Boar’s Head Inn, the DoubleTree Hotel and the Omni Charlottesville Hotel — can host meetings with maximums of 250 to 300 attendees.
“Once you get over that level, you can’t accommodate the meeting with a specific location,” said Chris Engel, the city’s economic development director.
The RFP says the study should examine many considerations for a new meeting facility, including potential site selection; size requirements; current and future zoning requirements; estimated project costs; leveraging partnerships; the projected utilization for the center; sustainability; and community impacts.
In addition, the CACVB has asked for guidance from the would-be contractor as to whether a new conference center should have an attached hotel and, if so, to include recommendations for its size and amenities.
In 1999, the CACVB hired consulting firm KPMG to conduct a similar market assessment for a proposed conference or convention center in the area. Although it concluded that a meeting facility would bolster the region’s economy, no further action was taken.
“I can only surmise that, with the 2000 dot-com bust and other things that were impacting the economy, it wasn’t on the front burner,” Burkhart said.
The Boar’s Head Pavilion opened about nine years after the study was done.
Engel said the CACVB board decided to initiate another study this year, “given the current interest in the hospitality sector in the area, new hotels that have been built and the continued interest of business groups to meet here.”
The 1999 assessment concluded that the Charlottesville area was not “attracting its fair share” of the market demand for conventions, meetings or tradeshows, in part because the existing inventory of meeting space was insufficient to attract larger events.
The study recommended a conference facility of 40,000 square feet or less, which could accommodate events with as many as 1,000 attendees. It said proximity to an existing hotel or the development of a new hotel would be critical to its success.
KPMG estimated that that the conference center would host 380 events each year and would be used by 156,000 people within five years of opening. The study also noted that Charlottesville was in direct competition with established meeting markets such as Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond and Williamsburg.
A new meeting facility in Charlottesville would join many others in Virginia that have been constructed or upgraded since 1999.
The Hotel Madison and Shenandoah Valley Conference Center is expected to open in Harrisonburg next March.
The $35 million, 230-room hotel will be privately owned and operated by Maryland-based development firm dpM. The James Madison University Foundation will finance the $10.9 million conference center, which the city of Harrisonburg will pay off with tax revenue generated by the project.
Harrisonburg commissioned a feasibility study for the hotel and conference center after dpM proposed the public-private partnership in 2012.
Brian Shull, Harrisonburg’s economic development director, said the study confirmed there was a strong market for meetings in the city. “It showed that there was a definite hole in service between Roanoke and Northern Virginia,” he said.
Burkhart and Engel both said it was too early to know where funding for a new meeting facility in Charlottesville could be found.
“These are expensive propositions that no one should take lightly,” Burkhart said.
Diantha McKeel, chairwoman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, said a new conference or convention center has been discussed during the development of the Rio+29 Small Area Plan and in meetings with Charlottesville city councilors.
“I am very pleased to hear that the [CACVB] is taking that to the next level,” McKeel said. “Any help that we can get, as far as more information and data is concerned, would be much appreciated.”
“This is one of the areas where Charlottesville and Albemarle County could cooperate regionally,” she said. “A convention center would really bring people into this whole area.”
“Whether our city can sustain national conferences is a good question to investigate,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin. “The benefit of conferences for our restaurants and hoteliers is undeniable. It provides them with a steady stream of income.”
Galvin said the National Society of Black Engineers recently considered holding a conference in the area, but was unable to find a suitable venue. “We are missing out on business,” she said.
However, Galvin said massive, single-use convention centers in urban downtowns can threaten the fabric and character of a city. “It’s like a ghost town in the evening, because no people live there,” she said.
Galvin said building hotels in close proximity to each other could be another way to meet demand for conferences in the area.