The Chattanooga Tourism Co. released findings of an eight-month study of the future of the convention center at the Rotary Club Thursday.
Project manager Tyler Othen of CSL International suggested converting the TVA site on Market Street to a 100,000 square foot ballroom with a 25-story hotel above it, the most “aspirational” or “transformational” long-term recommendation of the study. He said this scenario could cost as much as $100 million but would generate $53 million a year, including $3.8 million in taxes.
The convention center’s 18,000-square-foot ballroom should be 30,000 or 40,000 square feet for the modern market, he said, which would compete with Memphis, Savannah and Louisville, Ky.
On a smaller scale, he said, the convention center could build that ballroom above its loading dock.
But Chattanooga has half the hotel rooms it needs to attract big conventions, he said.
A “headquarter” hotel needs at least 400 rooms, and as many as 700 rooms that can be blocked en masse.
“It would be nice to have another big box hotel,” he said. “Another Marriott,” he said, to “punch above our weight class.”
Mr. Othen said a new, large hotel would not take business from smaller accommodations in the metro area, but instead would push the demand of smaller groups out to them.
The convention center hosts about 450 events per year, or 43 percent of its capacity, Mr. Othen said. He pointed out that the number of events fluctuates year to year.
“It’s not a given that you win that business,” he said.
Short-term recommendations of the study, or five-year recommendations, are to develop a 10,000-square-foot outdoor space between the Marriott and the convention center, and to develop a “convention district” within a 10-minute walk. One-third of convention planners require outdoor space, he said, and Gen X and Millennial planners and attendees want “unique experiences,” he said. They want a rooftop terrace. They want an event garden. They want to spread some convention gatherings into local restaurants.
Mr. Othen urged developers to prioritize hotels, street-level restaurants and music venues as parcels around the convention center become available.
He said pedestrian connectivity to restaurants, Main Street and the Bend can be roped into the convention package with programmed lighting, music and public art just for convention-goers.
Inside the convention center he pitched a “village environment” with a local micro food hall and furniture and partitions so that some lectures can be held in the lobby.
Mr. Othen said the convention center could generate half a million dollars a year in advertising on LED panels throughout the center. The panels would be part of an overhaul of the infrastructure backbone for presentations and other communication and activities at events.
The convention center study was a collaboration of the city and the county, which own the property, the Carter Street Board, which operates the building, and Chattanooga Tourism Co, which promotes the space.
The convention center was built in 1985 and was renovated about 20 years ago.
“We feel the timing is right for this,” said CTC President and CEO Barry White. “We need to start thinking about the future.”
The convention center study is part one of three studies to develop Chattanooga as a destination city. A music venue study will be released the first part of 2024, followed by a sports facilities study.