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Madison supervisors receptive on conference center proposal

MadisonConfCenterchart_rgbBy TED CARTER

Supporters of a Madison County conference center got a green light Monday from county supervisors to begin working with key county officials on ways to cover the $13.8 million to $18 million cost of a 63,000 square-foot center.

Supervisors also suggested supporters decide the most suitable location for both the center and a privately funded, 200-room hotel to accommodate visitors attending conferences, meetings, trade shows and other gatherings at the center. Highland Colony Parkway has been the top preference for the project first proposed more than a decade ago.

“I think the location will have a lot to do with how the project is financed,” said Tim Coursey, Madison county Economic Development Authority executive director.

For instance, Coursey said, building the center on property straddling the borders of Ridgeland and Madison would likely require both cities to help finance it. On the other hand, putting the center in either of the cities “would probably mean a large private component” for funding, he said.

Any site chosen must have land for a hotel, Coursey said. “A successful project is predicated on having a 200-room hotel as part of the complex.”

Under one scenario, the county would team with Holmes Community College to build the center. The college would establish a culinary arts school and a hospitality management school at the conference center, according to Coursey.

“We’ve got a hollow framework of how this might be financed, basically leveraging the resources the junior college already has to cut expenses,” Coursey said in an early August interview.

The college, he said, would provide the security guards and allow hospitality students to help with the conferences. “We can eliminate practically all of our operating expenses if we planned it right.”

He said a partnership with the college would dictate putting the center near the Madison County campus.

Whatever plan is selected for the center is likely to require “some type of public financing,” Coursey said, “from the county and state level.”

A private partner will likely want to mitigate its risk by insisting that public financing is in place before committing to the project, Coursey noted

The challenge, he added, is to develop a plan that has “the lowest impact on the taxpayer” and “the best means of mitigating financial risks.”

Coursey said he expects supporters, which include the Madison County Business League Foundation, will firm up plans for the project and return to the Board of supervisors early in the next quarter. “We’ll want to make sure we’re on the right track,” he said.

Karl Banks, supervisor for District 4 and board president, mentioned providing a dedicated tax millage, if needed. “We don’t know,” Coursey said, “that it will be necessary.”

The effort has also received support from District 1 Supervisor John Bell and District 3 Supervisor Gerald Steen, according to Coursey.

Supervisors heard Monday from representatives of Ridgeland’s Mississippi Materials and C Spire who said their companies have difficulty accommodating meetings and conferences. Also, a representative of Butler Snow detailed the non-stop use the conference center at the law firm’s Colony Parkway headquarters has seen from business and community groups in recent years.

Mary Beth Wilkerson, head of the Ridgeland Tourism Commission, told supervisors the absence of a conference center has cost Madison County significant visitor revenue in recent years.

“The presentations were well received,” Coursey said.

The conference center effort gained momentum several months ago with completion of a feasibility study funded by the now-merged Madison County Foundation and Madison County Business League.

The study by Johnson Consulting of Chicago analyzed the local conferences and meetings market, Madison County’s market position within the conference industry. It also included recommendations and projections of the conference center’s demand and operations.

A Johnson Consulting study 12 years ago concluded Madison County lacked a population sufficient to support a conference center.

The new Johnson Consulting study projected that losses would occur the first 10 years, though the deficits would be lower in some years than in others.

The center would end its first year with expenses of $625,000 leading to an operating deficit of $452,000; $753,000 in expenses bringing a loss of $129,000 by the fifth year; and $852,000 in expenses resulting in losses of $146,000 in the 10th year.

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