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Conference center conversation
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There has been a great deal of rumblings lately about the conference center planned for J.F. Gregory Park. I didn’t know a lot about it since I have never been to a city council meeting and I don’t spend a lot of time reviewing SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) allocation. Both are things I need to rectify.

However, I do know that there are in fact regular, open to the public, city council meetings and SPLOST funds can’t be tossed around at whim. These two things being true, I decided to go straight to the man who should know, City Manager Mike Melton.

It was very easy to get a meeting with him. I just called his office and said, "Can I make an appointment to see Mike?" She said, "How about Friday?"

That was that. There were no calls to reschedule and no balking about whether or not it was important. Accessibility always gets points in my book.

So, here is the skinny on the conference center as I know it after my meeting with Mike.

Back in 2004, plans began to build a complex in Richmond Hill. The idea was to have a full service conference and aquatic center down Hwy. 144 at the new Richmond Hill Plantation subdivision. The funds would be acquired through SPLOST and that vote was passed with overwhelming support.

Once plans had been started, it was found that the original location was unavailable. Since the SPLOST vote was not location specific, the city council voted to move the project to its current spot in J.F. Gregory Park.

The council did consider other areas. However, the city doesn’t own any other land suitable for the project, can’t afford to purchase it outright and hasn’t been offered any other options.

They also thought the park was a good idea. It fit well with the plans to create a centralized downtown area and the $300,000 grant from the Department of Transportation for the streetscape project.

The marketing firms that assessed the situation agreed. The conference center is being marketed as a destination location for out of town conferences and a local setting for local folks. While there is no room for the aquatic center and the idea of a hotel on-site is little more than just idea, the probability of success is high.

For out of towners, there are provisions being discussed for meals during conferences and shuttle service afterwards.

For locals, Mike sees this is an answer to many of the personal and professional functions that have to be planned outside of Richmond Hill due to lack of venue. He sees it as the perfect place for annual meetings, dinners, weddings and other large gatherings that are not currently accommodated by another facility.

The expected maintenance and operation budget is almost entirely handled by the 2 percent tax levied on the local hotels. Mike says the tax is typical for cities with conference centers and has been in place in Richmond Hill for over a year. There have been no complaints and the cost is passed on to those passing through.

Bids are currently being taken and a contractor should be in place by the end of the month.

Until then, there is no word on how much the project will cost. However, it should be less than the $4 million to $5 million estimated originally with the aquatic center.

Mike did mention that the bids being accepted were guaranteed maximum price. This means that regardless of unforeseen issues in construction, the project has a ceiling cost for completion. The groundbreaking is expected in the spring.

So, why not have another public hearing? Because the city council voted unanimously not to have one. Mike agrees with their decision.

He points to numerous meetings already held, open city council meetings and lack of participation at the meetings. He also mentioned that Mayor Davis, the council members and himself are very accessible. In fact, Mike’s cell phone number is on his card. But he hasn’t received any calls of outrage, at least not over this.

Now you know what I know, and I would love to talk to you about it - especially if you know a thing or two about SPLOST.

Note: The Richmond Hill and Bryan County 2008 Business & Consumer Expo is scheduled for April 18 and 19 at the Richmond Hill Recreation Center. The Friday event, April 18, is slotted as a business to business gathering. The Saturday event, April 19, is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is open to the public free of charge.

Businesses that wish to participate or individuals who would like to help out can get more information by calling the Chamber of Commerce at 756-3444 or Shirley Heagerty at 756-7113.

April Groves covers all things business for the Bryan County News. You can send thoughts, press releases, tips and questions you’d like answered to

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