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Thousands of convention-goers are on their way. Where will they sleep?

Wake-Up Call


With less than two years to go before a newly expanded Richmond Center opens downtown, city officials and civic boosters are scrambling to solve a bed shortage.

"We are about a thousand [hotel] rooms short of what we would really like to have to make the convention center fully successful," says Jack F. Berry, executive director of Richmond Renaissance, an organization that works to revive downtown.

The convention center is undergoing a $162 million supersizing in an area bounded by Broad and Marshall streets and Fourth and Sixth. Scheduled to open in January 2003, it is expected to draw thousands more tourists to the region.

The challenge is, that opening date leaves planners only 23 months to nail down sleeping arrangements for all those extra people.

"We've thought a lot about it; we just haven't figured it out," Berry says. "It's going to be interesting to see whether it can be done."

John Woodward, the city's economic development director, says there must be more hotel rooms. "We will definitely address the hospitality situation," he says. "Finally, the wheels are starting to turn and I think we're making progress in that regard."

It's not an emergency, exactly. In the Richmond region, there are enough hotel rooms to meet the expected demanded. But the problem is that they're not all in one place.

Hotels around Richmond don't mind the lack of a central hotel. The Boulevard Holiday Inn, for example, a few exits away from the Richmond Center, is launching a $2 million renovation in part because of the expansion of the convention center.

Still, to make the convention center a true success, the city would like to keep the bulk of convention-goers unpacking — and spending — in the downtown area around the convention center.

"You'd like to have some concentration in the vicinity," says Brian Glass, vice president of retail brokerage at Grubb & Ellis/Harrison & Bates.

The hope is that they can avoid such a situation confronted by Charlotte, N.C., where Glass is heading for a convention next month. Charlotte didn't build a convention hotel anywhere near its new convention center, Glass says, "and they found that it was a negative in attracting conventions to the city."

There's also a question of timing. Planners would prefer to have the new hotel rooms ready by the Richmond Center's opening to emphasize their preparedness and to bolster confidence in their ability to conveniently accommodate big conventions.

So will the rooms be ready? It depends on the solution, Woodward says: "The different scenarios out there will determine the time frame."

A variety of options would increase the number of hotel rooms by at least 500, Berry says, although the goal is 1,000. His group has offered some suggestions:

Build a new convention hotel, which could go up directly across from the convention center, in the block where the G.C. Murphy department store now stands.

Renovate the vacant Miller & Rhoads building and turn it into a hotel.

Complete the renovation of the John Marshall Hotel at 502 E. Franklin, which would add 300 rooms, and add a second tower to the Richmond Marriott, which would add 200 rooms.

Renovate the Wachovia Bank building on Broad Street into a suites hotel, and add the second tower to the Marriott.

Berry says his favorite of the options would be to construct a convention hotel across from the convention center. "That would be wonderful," he says. "We would be a tremendous destination if we could cause that to happen."

Although a renovation of Miller & Rhoads would be "very challenging," he says, it also would be a good solution. Meanwhile the John Marshall Hotel-Marriott tower combo solution likely would be the fastest way to increase the city's room count.

But of course, any scenario takes money. And that's the job of a master developer, who would help secure financing for various retail, residential and other projects — including, perhaps, a convention hotel — that would support the renovation of the Broad Street corridor.

(There are a number of high-hope visions for the development of the corridor, including the recently announced Virginia Performing Arts Complex, a $70 million to $100 million dream to create a multi-theater nirvana centered on part of the site where the scraggly Sixth Street Marketplace now stands.)

During the past two weeks, city officials and representatives from Richmond Renaissance began to review proposals from potential master developers. They hope to pick one by the end of March.

If a convention hotel is to be up and running by January 2003, says analyst Glass, a deal for one would have to be inked in the next six months.

"There probably is a little scrambling going on," says Richard Johnson, chairman of the Greater Richmond Convention Center Authority, which is constructing and operating the Richmond Center. "That's probably natural and not unhealthy at this point."

The real challenge, says Johnson, will be coming up with the resources to land a hotel: money, manpower and political capital.

And that will take work, Woodward says. "We need to get moving quickly," he says, regardless of how they decide to solve the hotel room shortage. "And that is the bottom

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