Convention Center construction enters new phase

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 22, 2001

The brilliant yellow sheathing board at first gave motorists and passers-by some pause. Not to worry, though. The mammoth building, all angular beams and open spaces in recent months, is beginning to take shape.

What for many weeks seemed a giant mud field, at last has the appearance of something both important and maybe even handsome.

What will become a bustling convention center in a matter of months, finally has a look of reality about it.

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The full block bordered by Main, Wall, Franklin and Canal is the site of one of the largest construction projects in downtown Natchez in decades, and anticipation grows as the new Natchez Convention Center closes in on an April 2002 completion date.

&uot;The convention center is on schedule,&uot; said Walter Tipton, CEO of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau. &uot;We’re about to go to bid on the sound and security system and the cable system.&uot;

The first convention booked at the new facility is April 13. The group, Mississippi Orthopoedic Society, is not a large one, Tipton said. And he’s thankful for that.

&uot;With the very first group, you want to have the option of moving them from one area to another if there are problems,&uot; he said. &uot;We don’t anticipate that, but we’re anxious to see how it works out that first time.&uot;

The big conventions are coming, he said, but they book facilities several years ahead. &uot;For example, we’re having the Mississippi National Guard in 2004. They have been to Natchez before but they outgrew us,&uot; Tipton said. &uot;I’ve assured them we can seat all of them for dinner.&uot;

In fact, the main hall will seat 1,800 theater style for lectures and 1,200 for dinner.

Tipton said a big push from the CVB is to put together vendor shows for the groups. &uot;Those shows are a win-win-win situation,&uot; he said. &uot;The convention people win, the vendors win and the community wins.&uot;

As an example, he used a potential meeting of police chiefs at the new convention center. &uot;Let’s say a company wants to sell sirens to the police chiefs. The salesman has to visit 100 different cities and then go back a couple of times to work on the sale,&uot; he said.

&uot;A better way of doing that is to have vendors exhibit as part of the program. That salesman makes one trip, buys a booth – and that money goes to the police association for them to put into their scholarships or whatever charitable cause they wish.&uot;

The community benefits from the additional people who attend the convention in connection with exhibits and sales. What’s more, the exhibitors are likely to host hospitality suites and dinners – another boost to local sales.

&uot;My goal is to talk to 300 associations and book 30 for 2002,&uot; Tipton said. &uot;In between, I hope to book 30 local events, such as wedding receptions and Mardi Gras events.&uot;

If the community center, corner of Franklin and Wall streets is any indication, the convention center will be a popular place for local events. &uot;We’ve already got at the community center more than 20 events.&uot;

The new convention center will be a versatile building, designed to accommodate more than one small- to medium-size group at a time.

The main hall can break into three sections. The smaller rooms on the second floor will accommodate from 70 to 116. The board room will accommodate 40.

Along Main Street, the most elaborate facade of the building, the design will include small units resembling a row of buildings, some with brick surfaces, some stuccoed and scored. The small rooms on the second floor will have access to balconies overlooking Main. &uot;Anyone familiar with Natchez and all our parades knows why we’ve included those balconies,&uot; Tipton said. &uot;I like to think of Natchez as becoming a mini New Orleans, but a cleaner, more family-oriented New Orleans. Not all cities celebrate all the holidays we do in Natchez, and that’s a plus.&uot;

Four entrances – plus the vendor entrances on Franklin Street – will make the convention center accessible and will help to keep various groups private from one another when more than one meeting is taking place, Tipton said.

&uot;On the corner of Main and Wall – we call that our Eola entrance – we will have an entrance that has a stairway right inside the door that goes up to the smaller meeting rooms on the second floor.&uot;

On the corner at Canal will be a similar entrance. And on Canal Street will be drive-in access to doors leading into the large reception area on that side of the building.

&uot;Coming off Canal Street, you’ll walk into what we call a pre-function area. That’s just a reception area for things such as meeting registration.&uot; The Canal Street entrance will be used most by large groups, he said.

With the community center across Franklin Street and the City Auditorium only a block away, the new convention center offers some unique opportunities for large groups, Tipton said.

&uot;I could envision some large vendors using the entire community center,&uot; he said.

Long-range plans are to identify 800 associations in the three-state market of which Natchez is a part.

&uot;Natchez is a national market. There’s no doubt about that,&uot; Tipton said. &uot;But our niche market will be the tri-state associations, and we’re positioned perfectly to attract them.&uot;

For example, Natchez is almost exactly the halfway point between the state capitals of Louisiana and Mississippi. &uot;It’s a great plus, and people are starting to realize that.&uot;