A delegation of over 20 leaders from West Alabama recently traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee to learn about the city’s recipe for success.

The group of Tuscaloosa-area leaders learned about Chattanooga’s $1 billion tourism industry and experience economy, with a major concentration on the convention center located in downtown. With 100,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space, 21 meeting rooms and 19,000 square feet of divisible ballroom space on one level, the convention center can hold a function of any size.

“We do about an indirect economic impact about $45-50 million and that’s in direct spending that’s in Chattanooga Hamilton County based on the hotel rooms that we generate with the people that are coming into this facility,” said Mike Shuford, Executive Director of the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Shuford said community involvement and partnerships have played a major role in the center’s success.

“This didn’t happen overnight,” Shuford said. “It started, it was probably when the convention center opened in 85 and the Tennessee aquarium opened in 92 and I was like, an aquarium, what’s that going to do? Within a five to an eight-year period that spurned about 40 restaurants that opened in the same area.”

Learning from Chattanooga’s success will guide Tuscaloosa’s leaders as the city works to implement Mayor Walt Maddox’s Elevate Tuscaloosa plan. Unveiled in February, Elevate Tuscaloosa includes $500 million worth of investments across the city, with $60 million going toward an experience economy that would bring more arts, entertainment, recreation and sports to Tuscaloosa.

“We’re having talks about our airport service, we’re having talks about an events center or convention center, we’re having discussions about a sports complex and so seeing the benefits and seeing comments and the suggestions from the CVB convention center staff here in Chattanooga it’s really important to get as much information that we can so we can take that information back to Tuscaloosa we can build the right facility we can build the right center and really start bringing in business,” said Jasmine Rainey, Director of Tourism Development for Tuscaloosa.

Michele Coley, a Tuscaloosa business owner who sits on the Elevate Tuscaloosa Advisory Committee, said the big point that stood out to her on the trip was how essential the airport was to Chattanooga’s convention center.

“That’s something that we’ve been talking about which one should come first the airport or the convention center so, the people here in Chattanooga were really able to tell us how the two work together,” Coley said. “They said they built the things they built for the residence of the city and not necessarily for tourist and then what happened is tourist were benefitting off it because you took care of your citizens now that is a benefit you have tourists and people want to make your city a tourist place to come or a destination city.”

The topic of education also came up in discussions in Chattanooga.

“They take children that are failing [and]for four hours they do school work and the other four hours they do work,” said Erica Grant, a Tuscaloosa City Schools Board Member. “They go out to different jobs and that helps keep those children out of trouble, out of failing and they also getting credit with these jobs that has reached out in the Chattanooga area also I think a convention center would be great for education because it would be able to bring in different seminars for teacher advancing their learning be able to bring in different big conventions whether its selling different teacher products that enhancing learning I think a convention center would be awesome on the education side.”

Tuscaloosa’s delegation will soon meet to discuss everything they learned and bring some new ideas to the Druid City.

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