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Exhibition center will be a boost for county, District 4

Posted: June 10, 2012 - 12:05am

Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the new Columbia County exhibition center at the Gateway near Grovetown was organized by the Family Y, which will occupy about a third of the 47,000 square-foot facility.

Thus, most of the celebration for the golden-shovel event focused on the private organization that will be renting roughly 16,500 square feet of the facility from Columbia County.

That emphasis is understandable. The Y already has a contract in place for their part of the project, with high hopes for moving in before January 2013 in order to capture the fervor of area residents making New Year’s fitness resolutions.

In addition, the organization already has secured an adjacent 18.8 acres – much of it, as noted during Wednesday’s ceremony, due to the outstanding generosity of the Carter family – on which the Y plans to build its own facility, moving out of the portion of the exhibit hall rented from Columbia County.

The partnership with the county will help the Y get started at the Gateway, but the Y already is planning to spread its own wings. That’s a model the county should follow, too.

As Columbia County Adminstrator Scott Johnson joked during the ceremony, “There’s another little portion of this building that will be used as an exhibition space.”

Indeed. The initial 30,000 square feet will be larger than anything available in the county, and once the Y grows enough membership to build its own facility, the total size will be competitive within the market.

It’s not as big as the 200,000 square foot TEE Center under construction in downtown Augusta. But fortunately, it also lacks the controversial baggage of that facility.

In fact, the plus of the Y’s involvement, other than the obvious positive attention it brings to the site, is that the county starts the project with a reliable, long-term, rent-paying tenant already in place. That’s exactly the kind of public-private partnership that should be encouraged.

Once the facility’s construction is further along, however, county officials need to consider (again) yet another public/private partnership: Working with a professional promotion or marketing company to keep the facility booked with high-quality events.

The county has backed away from what had seemed an initial plan to do that with Evans Towne Center Park, and instead, for now, is going the route of hiring an employee to manage that site.

Yet the county also is burning through county funds to help support events as the park gets up to speed. Those training wheels have to come off one day, or we’ll never know how good the park can do on its own – or how much its challenges are simply papered over.

With the exhibition center, better to continue the model of the Family Y lease by encouraging the free market to guide the facility’s future. Let it fly.

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