400-room hotel, other expansions in the works for Gwinnett Center

DULUTH - Four years after the building of an arena and ballroom transformed the Gwinnett Center, officials are considering the next upgrade, which could include a luxury hotel.

"There had always been in the back of some people's minds the need to look at the viability of a full-service hotel attached to the complex, if we want to keep pace with the business demand," Director Preston Williams said. "There is a lot of (event business) we don't have a shot at because we don't have facilities big enough to handle it."

The center is limited to about 10 to 15 percent of the convention and trade show market - those that bring about 500 to 1,000 per event - Williams said. But a master plan showing plans to double the exhibit space and provide convention-attendees with an on-site, four-star hotel would open the center up to 60 percent more of the market.

"It's ambitious, but it's exciting," said Commissioner Lorraine Green, who represents the area and sits on the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau Board, which oversees the center. "It's really going to set our facilities apart from any midsize center in the Southeast. We're going to have it all."

While Williams does not expect to begin construction for at least two years, he has begun meeting with interested hoteliers.

The vision

Created through brainstorming sessions between center staff, clients and architects, the vision includes enhancing the center's lake into an attraction, with walking trails and possibly model boats, and adding shops and restaurants to the site.

The plans show an additional 165,000-square-foot exhibit hall and ballroom between the existing exhibit space and the Arena at Gwinnett Center, creating a complex of more than 800,000 square feet and a half-mile long.

The Performing Arts Center would also be expanded to upgrade its lobby and add meeting rooms.

For the hotel, Williams said the county could choose a public-private partnership, either by agreeing to build the hotel and leasing it to the company to pay off the debt or leasing the land to a company for an extended period of time.

Williams said expansions to the center without a hotel would not help draw in larger conventions because those event planners require a large hotel capacity nearby or, in some cases, on the site.

Gwinnett's Buckhead

While a Holiday Inn is located at the same corner as the Gwinnett Center at Satellite Boulevard and Sugarloaf Parkway, Williams said corporate events often require larger facilities.

He is proposing more than 400 rooms at the convention center site, but he said nearby hotels would benefit because larger events mean larger crowds that could spill out to the buildings in the area.

The county convention center first opened in 1992, but operated at a deficit until the arena opened in 2003. The popular venue is home to the Gwinnett Gladiators, a minor league hockey team, and has hosted concerts with big-name acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and George Strait.

Williams said the performers generally stay in hotels in the upscale Buckhead area, but he says he can see the Sugarloaf locale emulating the Atlanta entertainment scene.

"It can't help but happen. Look what's going on around here," he said, pointing in the direction of a new hotel being built on the other side of Interstate 85. "It's already happening to some degree."