I’m taking a tour of the new Wilmington Convention Center with Jenni Harris, the building’s sales and service director. The first thing I see is the ballroom. It’s nice. Large, at 12,000 square feet. Beautiful, with rich browns accenting an impeccable design, a smart mix of modern and classic.

“Ready to see the rest?” Harris asks when I finish taking pictures.

“There’s more?”

We exit the ballroom, walk down a hallway. “Holy cow,” I say.

Harris took the same tour with General Manager Susan Eaton last January. The building was a skeleton then, but Harris had basically the same reaction.

The hallway — it just keeps going. And where it leads — oh, man. We pass by several of the building’s eight meeting rooms, which range in size from 550 square feet to 1,150 square feet. They’ll all have A/V services, lighting controls, Internet and sound systems, and most can be split into two or three separate rooms if desired.

And then there is The Room. The exhibition room, the one that could hold a herd of cows, holy or unholy. It covers 30,000 square feet. It has a loading ramp and gate through which you can fit a semi. It’s huge.

As I gawk at the loading ramp and the sheer hugeness of that room, Harris laughs. “Yeah,” she says. “All the men go nuts about the parking deck. All the women go nuts about the kitchen.”

The building’s range of use is extensive. That massive exhibition hall is perfect for trade shows or festivals. The ballroom is perfect for weddings and banquets. It’s designed to host just about anything anyone could need.

And it’s not just the inside that’s nice. The outside is beautiful, too, as the designers used angles and lines similar to that of a ship’s sail, giving the building a classic yet unique look true to the soul of downtown Wilmington. There’s a banquet lawn right on the river, a fine setting for a wedding.

It’s practical, too, with a 581-space parking garage attached to its side and with room to build an adjacent hotel sometime in the next couple years. Total, the thing covers 107,000 square feet. And the kicker: It’s LEED certified — officially “green” by government standards.

“As an event planner, this is beyond anything else I’ve seen in Wilmington,” Harris says. “Size-wise. Capacity. The whole look of it. It’s incredible.”

Before joining the convention center staff, Harris worked for two years as Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s event planner; before that, she worked about six years for Colonial Marketing Group.

Ten years ago, the City of Wilmington started scouting locations and planning for the Wilmington Convention Center. The idea, says Convention Center
Sales Manager John Sneed — and Harris, Eaton and plenty of others echo him on this — was to bring business to Wilmington that has historically gone to South Carolina. People like to hold their conferences, conventions, everything, on the coast, and since there hasn’t been a major center like this one, they’ve been going to Myrtle Beach. Until now, 40 percent of all South Carolina’s convention center business was coming from North Carolina. That business, it was reasoned, should stay in our state.

It’s predicted that the new convention center will provide about 1,200 new jobs to the area and generate $1.5 million per year in combined city and county taxes.

Of course, a major issue that’s been brought up long the way has been the cost. Constructing 107,000 square feet of awesome isn’t cheap — the convention center price tag was right around $60 million. The City of Wilmington and the people of the convention center have been catching a lot of flack for the amount of tax monies being spent on this project. People get ugly about their tax dollars.

Thing about that is, not a dime of property tax money was used. “That’s become a pretty common myth about this whole project,” says Malissa Talbert, communications manager for the city manager’s office. “But no property tax dollars are involved.”

Part of the 10-year process involved a savvy move in 2003, when the City of Wilmington got legislation passed that enabled it to draw a three percent room occupancy tax from certain hotels in the area. In other words, the city received three percent of all the taxes tenants paid to city hotels. All that money went into a fund for one thing: the convention center.

Now, after a decade of planning and three years of construction, it’s time to see the payoff.

People have also expressed concern about the convention center becoming a “white elephant”—something that costs more to maintain than it’s bringing in. That’s fine, Talbert says. The plan isn’t to make money directly from the convention center (although Eaton feels like that’s possible). The plan is to drive economy into the Wilmington area, into the restaurants and hotels and shops. The plan is to draw businesses here, to give the adults a taste of the lifestyle available here and to entice them to return with their families for vacation.

“The building itself is not designed to make a profit,” Talbert says. “We decided to build it so that we could provide jobs and opportunities to businesses in our local area.”

Eaton dismisses the white elephant idea altogether.

“I’ve heard that story of the white elephant for years and years,” says Eaton, who works for a management company called SMG. She’s been in this business for 25 years. She’s managed five convention centers, including Chicago’s McCormick Place, one of the nation’s largest trade-show facilities, and the Miami Beach Convention Center.

“We manage 400-something facilities,” Eaton says. “Arenas. Stadiums. Convention centers. So, you know, we kind of know what we’re doing.”

That’s more than just talk. As of December, SMG had already booked more than 60 events at the Wilmington Convention Center. Many of them came from that 40 percent that once bypassed Wilmington on the way to South Carolina.

Get information about the Wilmington Convention Center at www.businessmadecasual.com or by calling (910) 251-5101