RALEIGH — When Raleigh tore down its old civic center, it was with the promise that a sparkling new building would attract thousands of people, and their wallets, to downtown hotels and restaurants.
Nearly two years after opening, the new convention center is bracing for one of its busiest stretches.
Starting today, two major groups, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, will bring at least 6,500 people to town during the next 10 days. Because downtown still lacks enough hotel rooms to accommodate these groups, attendees will be shuttled from the convention center to their hotels and other events.
The logistics will be similar to what will occur on a much larger scale in January, when the National Hockey League All-Star Game comes to Raleigh, a major boost for the area that could bring anywhere from $20 million to $30 million to local businesses. The last All-Star game, held in 2008 in Atlanta, had more than 23,000 people traveling to the city.
Getting Raleigh ready for the All-Star game has meant moving up the opening of a new terminal at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport and forming a committee that will consider how to handle the influx of people, and how to show them a good time. The convention center will play a key role. It is already slated to host a fan celebration and other events connected to the internationally broadcast game.
Raleigh has long been a city with widely separated public amenities rather than the concentration of museums, arenas and stadiums seen in other towns. The three hotels within walking distance of the convention center - Raleigh Marriott City Center, Sheraton Raleigh Hotel and the Clarion - have a combined 957 rooms, not nearly enough to support a large convention. Hundreds of additional hotel rooms planned for downtown are delayed because of the credit crunch caused by the recession.
The AME Zion and Omega conventions will be a key test.
"These are big conventions, but I think our city handles 3,000 easily," said Roger Krupa, director of Raleigh's Convention Center. "It doesn't feel crowded here at all."
'An explosion of activity'
Krupa acknowledges that turning Raleigh, which routinely tops quality-of-life lists, into a convention destination will be challenge. Krupa hopes that the back-to-back conventions will show Raleigh can also be a place a person wants to visit more than once.
Though it is capable of hosting up to 5,000 people, the convention center has been used mostly for small to medium-size groups that require anywhere from 300 to 700 hotel rooms. The biggest convention was Memorial Day weekend, with 7,500 fans of Japanese anime art and movies flooding into the facility to browse graphic novels and comics and talk about all things anime.
The week-long AME Zion conference on Christian education begins today, with an estimated 3,000 registered attendees, Krupa said. The following week, Omega Psi Phi will have its national conclave, bringing anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 people over the course of a week. The fraternity, founded at Howard University in 1911, has active members both college-age and older, and is one of the major black fraternities in the U.S. college system.
There are 3,500 people registered for the Omega conference, but that number could rise as college chapters and others come to attend a flurry of events, including a parade, a golf tournament and a step competition.
Michael Morgan, a Wake County Superior Court judge who is grand marshal for this year's conclave, said the past two years have been spent talking about how to get Raleigh ready for the Omegas, or Ques, as they're known.
"There's going to be an explosion of activity," he said.
It cost close to $6 million to operate the convention center last year, which was offset by $3.5 million in revenue, according to Krupa.
But the convention center, built for more than $220 million using a tax levied on restaurants and hotels, was pitched as a tool to spur other economic growth downtown.
Downtown restaurant operators, particularly those located near stops on the free R-Line circulator, say they're starting to see that benefit and that the convention center is helping them stay busy during a sluggish period for dining.
"We don't rely on the convention center itself but when there's a big convention center in town it definitely helps," said Gaurav Patel, president of Eschelon Hospitality, owner of Sono and The Oxford.
Even better for business are events on Fayetteville Street. Patel said most of the conventioneers that come into his restaurants stumble upon them after leaving the convention center or their hotel.
"I wish there was a way of directly marketing more to them," Patel said.
Some restaurants have found a way to do that.
Jason Smith, the chef and owner of 18 Seaboard in the Seaboard Station shopping area near Peace College, said that he has been impressed with the convention center staff and how they've reached out to him.
E-mail updates that are sent by the center staff let him know when a big convention is coming to town so that he can plan which nights to bring in more staff.
"If there's a convention in town, I staff up," Smith said. "I go from 25 to 29 people working at Seaboard. That's four more people paying taxes and going to spend it at the Draft House when they get off work, or wherever they go."
Not all are impressed
Not everyone is thrilled with the way the convention center has turned out.
Fuquay-Varina antiques dealer Jewell Ryal will be at this weekend's Antiques Extravaganza of North Carolina event, which will be held in the center's exhibit space.
But Ryal said that she's seen her sales drop since the show has been held at the new facility.
Ryal estimates that she's had a booth at five events at the center.
She said the space is too grandiose and the staff is not helpful enough, considering the building was built with more than $220 million in taxpayer money.
"It's very expensive piece of building for what it is," she said.
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