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Developer Ben Arnold is working with city, county and state officials to craft a deal to build a 350-plus room downtown hotel that would be the city’s largest.
But the city and county would have agree to expand their small convention center. And Mayor Steve Benjamin says a plan to do that could be in place by the end of the year.
The convention center hotel would be the second hotel Arnold has announced for the Vista in the past two weeks. He is currently awaiting city approval to build a 150-room boutique Hilton Tapestry hotel, named The Anthem, adjacent to the Adluh Flour silo and connected to the former Jillian’s building, which he owns.
Arnold, who also owns the adjacent building that houses Tsunami and other bar and restaurant spaces, wants to built the second much larger hotel behind The Anthem.
The total complex would cover 12 acres, or roughly the equivalent of three city blocks.
However, the project would have to be tied to a $60 million expansion of Columbia’s undersized convention center, and a 1,000-space parking garage that would likely cost $16 million to $25 million.
“It’s a matter of can we pull the city, county, even the state together to make it happen,” he said.
When the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center was built nearly two decades ago, it was deliberately designed small to make its cost more amenable to the city of Columbia, Richland and Lexington counties and Richland District One which funded it.
In fact, the two back walls are purposely non-load-bearing so the exhibit hall could be expanded over the back parking lot, said Bill Ellen, president and CEO of Experience Columbia, the region’s tourism authority.
Today, it is by far the smallest among the city’s competitors for conventions in the Southeast, with 23,700 square feet of exhibit space and 33,400 square feet of ballroom/meeting space.
By contrast, the Charleston Area Convention Center has 77,000 square feet of exhibit space and 73,000 square feet of meeting space, while Greenville’s suburban TD Convention Center has a whopping 280,000 square feet of exhibit space and 90,000 square feet of meeting space.
Despite it’s size, however, the convention center has been successful, increasing the number of visitors almost every year, Ellen said, even though its size limits the groups it attracts, Ellen said.
For instance, when the National Corvette Restorers Society was looking for a place for its 2019 annual meeting, board members wanted to come to South Carolina. Columbia caught their meeting planner’s eye.
The Capital City’s growing downtown and expanding restaurant, bar and brewery scene would make it a new and fresh destination for the organization’s 800 or so attendees. The planner also liked the new minor league baseball park, the revitalized Main Street and the additional attractions at Riverbanks Zoo and the State Museum.
But there was a problem. The tiny exhibition space at the convention center didn’t have room to display all the group’s 90 sports cars. So the group met in Greenville this year instead
“We’re turning down groups because we don’t have the space,” Ellen said.
But a small convention center isn’t the city’s only problem. It doesn’t have enough full service hotel rooms.
For instance, the NCAA basketball tournament requires a host city for the first round to have eight full service hotels (hotels with sit down restaurants, room service and other amenities), one for each team. When Columbia bid to host the 2019 tournament’s first two rounds, the city could only field six full-service hotels — and one was in the relative hinterlands of Bush River Road in St. Andrews.
But because of the state’s willingness to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, the NCAA cut Columbia a break and allowed two teams to double up in hotels.
Convention planners also like to place as many of its members in blocks of rooms in the same hotel. But because of Columbia’s high occupancy rates — near 76 percent — hotels generally won’t block rooms.
So a large hotel of up to 400 rooms and another 75,000 feet of exhibit space would be symbiotic, Ellen said.
“They don’t work without each other,” he said.
But the entire project is costly.
Arnold wouldn’t say what it would cost to build his 350-plus room hotel.
But Mayor Steve Benjamin said that he is certain that the hotel would qualify for the city and county’s new 10-year, 50 percent property tax break for projects over $30 million.
“It fits perfectly in that box,” he said.
A full-service hotel generally cost $150,000 per room, which would put Arnold’s hotel at a minimum of $52.5 million. (Arnold’s proposed 150-room hotel — The Anthem — is estimated at $40 million.)
Add in the $60 million cost of the convention center expansion and another $20 million or so for the parking garage, and Arnold, taxpayers and other partners will have to pony up nearly $200 million.
Benjamin said he believes local, state and private funds can be blended without raising hospitality, accommodations or any other taxes.
“There is enough funding out there to direct and redirect to expand the convention center,” he said.
The mayor also said the conversations he has had with Richland County Council and the county legislative delegation have been positive, and he hopes to have built a funding plan by the end of the year.
“We are evaluating a number of options,” he said. “It is very possible.”
County Council chairman Paul Livingston said the pairing of the expansion with Arnold’s substantial investment will make county funding more palatable.
And state Rep. Seth Rose, a Democrat who represents the Vista, said there could be some leverage for state funds.
Rose noted that Greenville received $7 million last year for a new downtown convention center. And he said the General Assembly should consider funding parity.
”We’re not proposing to build a convention center,” he said. “We have one. It’s successful. And we’re having to turn away customers. Expansion would reap the benefits.
And, he noted, the Arnold family for years have been one of the pillars of Columbia society and business.
Ben Arnold “is a very successful businessman and I’m delighted that he and others want to invest in Columbia.”
Developers are also building a Holiday Inn Express near the Columbia Police Department on Washington Street, converting a former office building into a full-service Holiday Inn near Main Street and turning the former Clarion Townhouse hotel on Gervais Street into two properties — a Home2Suites and Hilton Garden Inn.
Jason Outman, head of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, has said a growing University of South Carolina, more tourists, and the steady influx of businesspeople, state and federal workers, lobbyists and Fort Jackson parents are maxing out occupancy rates and driving up room rates.
Through the end of May, the 11 hotels in the downtown area — roughly from Blossom Street to Elmwood Avenue and Gregg Street to the Congaree River — had a 75.7 percent occupancy rate. That’s up from 70 percent last May.
Benjamin noted that the convention center is one of the main engines for those investments.
In addition to Arnold’s two hotels, The Aloft, Hilton Downtown Columbia, the Hyatt Place and the new Holiday Inn Express are all a short walk from the convention center.
“And those hotels will add significantly to the property tax base.”