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Resort a boon for Expo Center, but doesn't mean subsidy question goes away
BY EMILY BATTLE
The Kalahari Resort that announced plans Friday to build on 49 acres adjoining the Fredericksburg Expo and Convention Center will greatly enhance that center's ability to attract events.
It brings the Expo Center two important bargaining chips in the cutthroat world of convention recruiting: 900 hotel rooms and 100,000 more square feet of event space.
In addition, Kalahari's planned indoor-outdoor water park could be a draw for corporate convention attendees who want to bring their families along.
"We have an amenity to offer people, but it's realistically three years away," said Expo Center President Tom Ballantine.
That's part of the reason the Kalahari announcement doesn't eliminate the question of whether the city should give the center $900,000 over three years to help attract group business.
The $300,000-a-year deal has been called a subsidy. Ballantine likes to call it a public-private partnership that will allow him to go after professional, government and corporate conventions, which are more lucrative than the consumer and trade shows he is already booking.
Ballantine's sales staff has given him a list of 18 events he lost for 2008 because planners were looking for free or greatly reduced-cost space.
Most of his biggest competitors can offer these deep discounts because they are either government-owned centers that make up for the lost revenue in taxes, or hotel-convention centers, which can make up the loss in their room rates.
Ballantine can look to neither of those profit sources, so he says Fredericksburg often can't satisfy event planners' pricing expectations.
"We're asking for help on one business segment that benefits the city more than it does us," Ballantine said.
City Council members could vote on the Expo proposal at their Nov. 27 meeting. If they approve it, Ballantine says, he'll get back on the phone with the groups that turned him down and try to book them for later years.
One event the city recently tried to land for 2008 is the Virginia Democratic Convention. It's expected to draw 4,500 people, along with national media attention.
Ballantine said the Hampton Roads Convention Center, which won the event, was able to discount its rates much more deeply than he was.
But price isn't the only thing that plays into an event organizer's choice of venue.