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Onward and upward: Conference center and services continue to grow

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Saturday, August 11, 2018
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Decatr Conference Center

Decatur Conference Center and Fairfield Inn. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The Decatur Civic Center began its 18th year this summer sporting a new name and enhanced opportunities for growth with the opening of a new Marriott hotel next door to the center.

Now known as the Decatur Conference Center, the $13 million, 107-room hotel is expected to be the catalyst for longer term meetings at the center, according to Lori Sherwood, center manager for the past six years.

The growth should help Sherwood meet her goal of $500,000 in annual sales. Through June, sales totaled $399,142, a $50,000 increase from last year with the center covering 80 percent of its operating costs.

“That is much better than most conference centers,” Sherwood said. “Grapevine is not close to that.”

The remainder of the operating cost is covered by the city’s hotel-motel tax.

“The Marriott name itself is a big draw for many individuals and companies,” Sherwood said. “With rates of $90 to $104 per night, it gives us new opportunities for longer meetings.

Already the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth has rented the entire center for three days this fall. Recently, Twisted X Boot Co. held its national sales meeting at the center.

The hotel was a longtime dream of the original planners of the Conference Center. At the time it was built, the city purchased additional property in hopes a hotel would be built.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

The idea for a community or civic center was raised as early as 1981 when Ann Nobles, then president of the Chamber of Commerce, met with the city council to discuss the idea.

It was 13 years later when Don Robinson, president of the First National Bank and Chamber president, discussed the idea of a community-wide auction to raise funds for the project.

Robinson, who had come to Decatur from Terrell, had experience with a similar auction there. Decatur’s first auction was held on a rainy fall night at the National Guard Armory and was a huge success.

Several years after the auction began, work began in earnest on the project. In 1995, using proceeds from the auction, the Chamber funded a $10,000 feasibility study conducted by Dr. Bernard Weinstein of the University of North Texas.

When the study proved positive, many business and civic leaders spent several months touring civic centers in Grapevine, Gainesville, Mineola, Tyler, Athens and other cities.

As momentum developed, the Decatur Economic Development Corp. got involved in the project and Decatur voters approved allowing the civic center to be built using the half-cent economic development sales tax.

The city sold $4 million in bonds to finance the project. That debt will be retired in two years. The center was designed by Phelps-Wood Architects of Frisco and built by RBR Construction of Weatherford.

The center was opened with a two-day gala celebration June 23-24 of 2001. Mayor Bobby Wilson, EDC Chairman and Mayor Pro-Tem Charles Burton and Chamber President Mickey McMaster snipped the bright red ribbon on a sunny Sunday afternoon to formally open the building. Missy Lane, who had been executive director of the Chamber, was hired as the first civic center manager.

Before the formal opening, Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. hosted the first major event at the center featuring company founder George P. Mitchell.

Even earlier, Legend Bank had hosted a hamburger cookout for construction crews and other city leaders who had worked on the project.

FUTURE GROWTH PLANS

When the conference center debt is retired in two years, the city has discussed plans for renovations at the facility.

“We need to double the size of the kitchen,” Sherwood said. “The kitchen was originally designed as a catering facility only, and now we have a four-person culinary staff that serves 40,000 people a year.”

In addition to the enlarged kitchen, Sherwood wants to remove the permanent stage in the Great Hall and replace it with a portable stage. Removal of the stage will allow seating of up to 500 persons for banquet events, she said.

Also, she wants to enclose the pavilion at the front of the building for additional meeting space. She said both the stage and pavilion are rarely used, and the space can be better utilized with the renovations. Sherwood estimated the cost of the renovations at $1.5 to $2 million.

If the city decides to issue new debt, the conference center project will likely be part of a package to build a new 1-million gallon water storage tank on Thompson Street and complete the third floor in the Decatur Police Department building.

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