Staunton's Omni? Can Stonewall Jackson pay its bills?

Guess who foots the bill if revenues generated by the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center don't meet the expectations Staunton leaders had when they signed off on the $21 million renovation deal last year?

Uh-huh. Staunton city taxpayers– like their across-the-mountain counterparts who spent over $11 million in the 1980s and '90s to bail out the Charlottesville Omni. They could be the ones on the hook for $600,000 a year in debt service for the hotel and conference center project for the next three decades.

The deal might very well work out, and the Queen City might become a star on tourism maps. Or it could end up being a big bust, given the pace of construction of convention-center space nationwide.

"The question that has to be asked is, what does Staunton envision itself becoming?" says Heywood Sanders, a University of Texas-San Antonio professor who studies the convention-center business.

Sanders says that in the next five years, American cities will unveil 16 million square feet of new convention-center space– on top of the 54 million square feet currently available.

The available space is already double what was available in 1980– while the number of conventions has remained flat over the same period.

It's an interesting gamble, to be sure– when much larger centers in Boston, Charlotte, and Los Angeles, among others, have been forced to offer reduced-rate or free rents to fill their spaces.

With Richmond, Roanoke, and Williamsburg throwing their taxpayers' two cents worth and more into the mix, might Staunton be entering a market that will prove to be less lucrative than promised?

"I don't think so," says Staunton City Councilman Dickie Bell. "We didn't get into this thinking we could get the Democratic or Republican conventions to come to Staunton."

The more modest goal, Bell says, is to use the Stonewall Jackson– once it reopens for business in the autumn of 2005– to tap local and regional convention markets.

"A number of local civic groups are telling us they don't have room to hold their meetings and other activities," says Bell. "We're going to target that market and try to accommodate their needs."

The City of Staunton plans to contribute over $10 million for a conference center as part of the $21.1 million Stonewall Jackson project.