Convention center near Sarasota Bradenton airport closes its doors

Special to the HeraldApril 18, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Sarasota Bradenton International Convention Center has closed its doors after a failed 10-year attempt to attract national convention business.

Owner Oscar Parsons, who often complained that the center didn't receive marketing support from the county commissions of Manatee and Sarasota or local tourism officials, closed the center last week. Its promise of "everything under the sun for your perfect destination meeting" was never fulfilled.

In the past few years, Parsons had tried to sell the 93,000-square-foot former Sam's Club near the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport but had no buyers. The facility can accommodate 5,000 people.

"I never could make it as a convention center," he said. "I've gotten the cold shoulder from the convention bureaus of both counties."

In the past year, Parsons had several times thought he had come up with a deal with private companies to keep the center running or to lease the facility. But the deals fell through.

"I started this when I was 80. I'm 90 now and I'm tired," he said.

The center, which had attracted mainly expos and trade shows, had its last event April 12, a Mexican concert. A recorded message on the convention phone Tuesday said the convention center had closed.

Parsons said he had lost money every year since he bought the building in 2003 and in 2012 he was in the red by $75,000. At one point, the center had a staff of about 15. In the last few months, only a skeleton crew of two or three remained.

The facility did score a coup in 2007 when it hosted the Florida Huddle, an international trade show for the tourism industry.

In 2009, the Holiday Inn opened a hotel next to the center, which Parsons hoped

would be a drawing card for large groups. But it wasn't.

"It is basically a large exhibit hall with no meeting space," said hotel General Manager Mohammad Gharavi. "We got very little business from it."

Gharavi said most of the hotel's business comes from sporting events and corporate travelers.

Virginia Hailey, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she couldn't blame Parsons for being frustrated about the lack of convention business.

"He's had a struggle," she said. "We did promote it and introduced it to meeting planners but the facility has certain challenges."

The lack of meeting space along with staff turnover and not enough marketing by the convention center were issues, Hailey said.

"When we did bring people there, they found the room couldn't be divided and there is only one air-conditioning system, which is a drawback," she said.

Elliott Falcione, director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his agency's role is to "create awareness of the area's amenities" and not to market a specific venue or facility.

"I have the utmost admiration for Oscar to own and operate a convention center," he said. But most of the convention centers around the nation are owned by governments who can afford to handle losses better than a private owner.

Falcione is hoping to attract a hotel developer to build near the Bradenton Area Convention Center on Haben Boulevard in Palmetto to drive more business to that venue, which is owned by Manatee County.

"Our next step is to put out an RFP (request for proposal) to build a hotel this summer," he said. "I'm confident we will get one."

What business the Sarasota Bradenton Convention Center did have may end up going to the Palmetto facility. Falcione said he has gotten some inquiries in the last few months from companies that had previously held activities at the center near the airport.

Officials in Sarasota -- which has no large convention center -- over the years have discussed trying to build a facility, Hailey said. "There is a growing area of interest and we might see further talks this summer," she said.

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