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Aug 16, 2010 8:51 PM by Chris Welty

Expansion to Make Coast Major Meeting Competitor

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) - A $118 million expansion and renovation of
the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center will bring
Mississippi into the competitive fray for most of the biggest
meetings in the United States, the center's executive director
says.
State officials, including Gov. Haley Barbour and U.S. Sen. Thad
Cochran, will gather Tuesday to formally dedicate the expansion,
including 220,000 more feet of meeting space and a total overhaul
of the coliseum, one of the major concert venues in the region.
The expansion, which brings the meeting center to 400,000 square
feet, has been put into service over the past few years, a piece at
a time as construction was completed, said executive director Bill
Holmes.
In addition to boosting its regional competitive position
against New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa, Fla., Birmingham, Ala. and
Asheville, N.C., Biloxi can attract the mega-conventions with tens
of thousands of participants that meeting cities crave, Holmes
said.
"Now, we're in a position to appeal to 85 percent of the
businesses out there," he said.
The complex opened in 1976 with 100,000 square feet. Another
80,000 square feet was added in 1997 as the casino-tourism business
began exploding on the coast. In 2004, Harrison County voters
decided that the convention center should be more than doubled
through the hotel occupancy tax.
But Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005 just as officials were
about to move on the expansion. A year's delay was ordered because
the storm cut the number of available hotel rooms from 18,000 to
2,600, deeply cutting project revenue, as well as heavily damaging
both the convention center and coliseum.
In addition to the new meeting space, the older space has been
totally renovated with new sound and visual systems, directional
boards and high-speed Internet, Holmes said. A 420-space parking
garage brings onsite parking to 2,800 spaces.
The adjacent coliseum has 9,200 new permanent seats, which along
with movable floor seating, can accommodate 11,500 in a
concert-type setting. New dressing rooms, administrative offices,
lobby ceilings, doors and windows also are in place.
Although Katrina put a dent in business, and the Gulf of Mexico
oil spill issued a scare, Holmes said that the recent economic
downturn appeared to have the biggest effect in chilling business.
But bookings are on the rise, especially beginning in late 2011 and
throughout 2012, he said.
"It looks like the trend is people coming back to booking
conventions," he said.
Holmes, like many tourism officials on the Gulf Coast, said the
region suffered more from an image problem that an actual
environmental problem from the oil spill. He said advance bookings
for some meetings were down because of spill-related concerns, but
business is returning to normal.
A few tar balls wash ashore, but BP has had enough cleanup crews
to handle those, Holmes said. Ironically, the crews have been able
to manicure the beaches while filling up hotel rooms, he said.
"What the long-term future will be is anybody's guess," Holmes
said. "But there's no oil now."

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