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Trade Center posts strong numbers for new fiscal year

  • The Savannah International Trade & Convention Center, across the river from City Hall, has posted record numbers for the first few months of FY 2018, underscoring the need for expansion of its convention facilities. (Savannah Morning News file photo)

The Savannah International Trade &Convention Center is off to a good start in fiscal 2018, coming in $50,000 ahead of budget for August and a total of $71,000 better than budgeted for the year’s first two months.

Savor Savannah Catering, the trade center’s food and beverage operation, also had a good start, wrapping up its first two months nearly $77,000 ahead of budget.

The numbers prompted finance director Stephen Hall to conservatively predict the trade center would end the fiscal year in June 2018 some $28,000 favorable to budget.

As always, the phrase “favorable to budget” is not an indication that the Trade Center is in the black, but rather that it beat budgeted projections. Convention centers rarely make money, but rather support those lucrative industries — such as trade and tourism — that do contribute to a community’s economic well-being.

As promising as the financials were, trade center authority chairman Mark Smith was even more impressed with the definite bookings already in place for fiscal 2018 — 110 events representing 162,000 attendees and nearly 107,000 room nights.

“Already, it appears we’re on track for a record-breaking year, based on the projected number of room nights,” Smith said, adding that numbers like those clearly back the board’s assertion that the 17-year-old trade center is overdue for an expansion.

For several years, Smith has had staff keep a running list of larger groups that indicated they would come to Savannah if the facility had more meeting and exhibit space and their participants could be housed in fewer hotel rooms. He also has a growing list of groups that already come to Savannah and would like to continue, but are rapidly outgrowing the trade center.

To kick-start the project and begin preliminary design work on an expansion, the authority brought in Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback &Associates of Atlanta and Hansen Architects of Savannah — the team that designed the original trade center building some 20 years ago. That group then met with Atlanta developer Songy Highroads, which will build and operate the new Omni convention hotel on Hutchinson, to get a consensus on how the expansion should look.

Smith’s request to Gov. Nathan Deal for $3 million to complete design work was approved and included in the governor’s supplemental budget earlier this year.

Now the heavy lifting begins.

Smith said Wednesday that he has spoken with the governor, who agreed to a meeting in Atlanta to discuss the proposed expansion. He’s now waiting for that meeting to be scheduled.

In the meantime, two letters — one from community leaders and business people and another from the area’s Congressional delegation — have been sent to Deal urging support of the funding request for $63 million expected to go before the state legislature early next year.

“That amount would represent a down payment that signals the state plans to be a major participant in the project and intends to fund it at a very significant level,” Smith said.

“With 1,000 hotel rooms currently under construction in downtown Savannah, another 500 to 1,000 getting ready to break ground and some 500 to 1,000 in the pipeline, there is the real potential in the near future for a convention center campus ringed by some 2,500 rooms on the river,” he said.

“And that just underscores the need for expansion of the trade center — sooner rather than later.”

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