Columbia Convention Center

Events at the Columbia Convention Center have been limited by a lack of exhibit space. An expansion is being considered, although a plan to pay for it has not been worked out. Photo courtesy of Experience Columbia SC

COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina could have ties to a hotel planned near Columbia's convention center.

Developer Ben Arnold and new USC President Bob Caslen have discussed hosting an internship program at a second convention-area hotel that Arnold has proposed in Columbia's Vista entertainment district.

No details have been announced, and talks are preliminary, but Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Caslen has made his excitement known and thinks it would be a good opportunity for the college. 

"We'd like to explore possible internship opportunities with this and any other new developments to give our students practical experience," USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said.

Arnold announced plans in August for the four-star, 150-room Hotel Anthem, a Hilton property. At that time, he said he was reserving land on the same site for another possible hotel catering to convention traffic.

The proposed second hotel with 300 to 400 rooms would mark USC's second in-field training program. Hospitality students gain experience running 1801 Grille restaurant across Lincoln Street near the convention center.

Talks between university leadership and Arnold are happening in the midst of efforts to expand Columbia's convention center, the smallest in the state, as the capital city jockeys to win larger regional events.

“We can’t expand without more available full-service rooms that can commit the room blocks we need,” said Bill Ellen, president of the city’s convention and tourism organization Experience Columbia SC.

And vice versa.

Arnold has said development of a second hotel hinges on convention center expansion.

Benjamin said he’s encouraged by the results of a recent feasibility study and construction cost estimates. The council is expected to hear plans for financing another 74,000 square feet of exhibit space at its next meeting on Monday.

There’s still architectural and engineering work to be done on a center expansion, Benjamin said, but he would like to see ground broken before the end of 2020.

Previous cost estimates for the convention center expansion have hovered around $60 million, which is expected to be mostly covered by extending a city and Richland County tax on hotel rooms.

The city also will go to the Legislature in January to seek funding, Benjamin said. He said they'll be seeking aid at least equal to the $5 million Greenville has been granted for its new downtown convention center project.

The center consistently operates six days a week and held 380 events in 2018, Ellen said, compared to 360 in 2016.

“The thing that’s encouraging is the size of our events is increasing,” he said.

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And with continuing development in the Vista entertainment district and the rebirth of Main Street, interest in Columbia from conference and convention planners has increased.

Ellen said the convention center has met its limit though in terms of event size.

“We can’t really do anything larger due to lack of space,” he said. “We’d be able to maintain but don’t expect any more growth at our present size.”

Hotel developers in Columbia historically have built properties smaller than typical convention center hotel capacity, Ellen said. They also don’t need to offer up blocks of rooms to conventions because business travel demand is high enough to fill vacancies.

“Business demand is so strong they don’t need to give discounted room blocks in order to fill up,” Ellen said.

And when the convention center is able to arrange blocks of rooms, he said, most of the time they’re still not as big as what meeting planners need.

About 5.5 million visitors stay overnight annually in Columbia, a number that has increased by 100,000 people between 2016 and 2018, Ellen said.

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.