Despite consistent growth, both in population and economic development, there is one thing Madison County does not have that many business and community leaders alike wish that it did: a conference center.
In fact, the county does not currently have a conference or meeting facility to accommodate a gathering of more than 250 people, which is something that was needed pre-COVID and will be needed again once the pandemic has passed.
This need was first recognized when a feasibility study was conducted in 2004 and again in 2014 when the study was updated by Johnson Consulting Inc.
The study found that a conference center consisting of approximately 60,000 square feet of building area with a 15,000-square-foot ballroom or multipurpose hall and 10,000 square feet of meeting rooms built adjacent to a lodging element of approximately 200 rooms was appropriate and viable for Madison County.
This was determined by considering projected event demand and comparison to regional and comparable facilities, along with other economic and demographic factors.
The projected cost of a conference center, according to the 2014 study, was approximately $18.27 million.
The first study, from 2004, was presented to the Madison County board of supervisors at that time by the Madison County Business League and Foundation (MCBLF), according to a previous Sun report.
When there was no movement on the project after 10 years, an updated study was conducted in 2014. The board voted to look into funding for a conference center, according to an article in the September 10, 2015 edition of the Northside Sun.
However, since then, there has not been any progress on the project.
Even so, local leaders continue to support the possibility of bringing a conference center to the county, citing how they believe it would enhance Madison County’s tourism and retail opportunities while also keeping tax dollars local.
“The projected local economic impact in 2015 was $16 million in direct spending by convention goers,” said MCBLF Executive
Director Jan Collins.
Collins said the feasibility study has been used by several private investors and local agencies. She believes the need for a facility of this kind to be greater now - in normal circumstances pre-coronavirus - than before for meeting space for conferences, private events and a corporate event site for Madison County companies.
“A conference center would greatly enhance the efforts of the Madison County tourism, hospitality and retail industries,” Collins said. “Not to mention providing an attractive marketing tool to use in negotiations with companies looking to locate in Madison County.”
Chris Chapman, executive director of the Ridgeland Tourism Commission, said Visit Ridgeland receives numerous requests for banquet space that cannot be housed in the city due to the lack of facilities with sufficient space.
“Conference centers are empty right now,” Chapman said. “The meetings business has taken a deep dive, but we are hopeful that conferences will be back on the horizon next year. Ridgeland receives numerous requests for banquet space that can not be housed. Prior to COVID, that was a serious issue, but as with all group gatherings and meetings at the moment, it is not an issue.”
Looking to the future, Chapman said she is hopeful for a banquet or meeting space will be created to accommodate groups over 200.
Mina Thorgeson, director of Sales and Event Partnership for the Ridgeland Tourism Commission, said she has advocated for an adequate meeting facility in Ridgeland for the 10 years she has worked there.
Thorgeson said the city has 16 hotels and another under construction. Of these 17 hotels, she said only two have space for small meetings. Prior to COVID-19, she said they generated stays at the hotels as they stayed booked up.
“Room nights mean visitors, and the tourism industry in Ridgeland supports 2295 jobs, generates over $14 million in state and local taxes with capital investments of over $6 million generated by over $178 million in visitor spending,” Thorgeson said. “Tourism is an important economic driver in Ridgeland, Madison County and the state.”
When she began working for the Ridgeland Tourism Commission, Thorgeson said she would receive approximately five or six requests each week seeking space in the city to host a meeting, conference or social event.
“When my response became, we don’t have adequate facilities to those leads, they stopped asking,” Thorgeson said. “We receive occasional RFP’s for business meetings, but the event industry, such as weddings and reunions, is growing and they need a place to meet. If Madison County, if Ridgeland, had meeting facilities, those organizations and businesses would come and support the local economy.”
Ridgeland Tourism does maintain active memberships in the Mississippi Society of Association Executives to encourage executives to host their smaller meetings of 200 guests or fewer.
“We are grateful for their support, but we need their annual conventions,” Thorgeson said. “Our own Chamber of Commerce has to go to Hinds County to host the annual bequest as do many other local organizations and that revenue leaves Madison County. A high school reunion just went to Rankin County because of a lack of adequate meeting facilities here.”
Thorgeson said the feasibility studies for a Madison County conference center also suggested appropriate locations for such a facility near the hotel, dining and shopping areas near Highland Colony in Ridgeland.
“Should a facility be built, Ridgeland Tourism could focus more on marketing and advertising to attract those meetings and conventions,” Thorgeson said.
When asked if funding for projects like a conference center or driver’s license facility - which have been proposed to the board of supervisors in the past - take a backseat to funding for road construction, County Administrator Shelton Vance said road maintenance is the most frequent concern voiced by residents who call in to county offices.
“Sometimes, the board has to pursue the projects that can actually be completed,” Vance said. “They always have projects in mind, looking for the opportunity to make those projects reality.”