Savannah Convention Center

ATLANTA – Georgia’s economic development agency signed off Wednesday on the first phase of the planned expansion of the Savannah Convention Center.

The Department of Economic Development’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to sell $70 million in bonds to begin construction of the $210 million project on Hutchinson Island. Savannah officials and the city’s legislative delegation will seek the rest of the funding during the next two years.

This year’s first installment already had been approved by the General Assembly as part of a $1.13 billion fiscal 2021 bond package.

The project will double the exhibit hall space to 200,000 square feet, add a 60-foot-wide hangar door, a new entrance with an all-glass façade, outdoor space, a 40,000-square-foot ballroom, 15 meeting rooms and 900 parking spaces.

A second “bookend” hotel financed with private funds is to be built adjacent to the site, joining the Westin Savannah Harbor.

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the convention center was frequently booked to capacity, forcing it to turn away larger gatherings that would bring in more revenue.

“This is a significant boost for Savannah tourism and development,” said Larry Hanson, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association and a member of the economic development agency’s board.

“It’s a good investment,” added board member Jay Neely, a vice president at Savannah-based Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.

Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, told board members Wednesday the groundbreaking for the project will take place this fall, with the expanded center due to open by the end of 2023.

In other business at Wednesday’s meeting, the board approved transferring the operation and maintenance of two of Georgia’s 11 welcome centers from the state Department of Economic Development to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Unlike the other nine welcome centers, the centers in Plains and Sylvania are not located along interstate highways near the various state lines, said Andrew Capezzuto, the economic development agency’s general counsel.

While the nine interstate welcome centers serve primarily as rest stops for travelers, the centers in Plains – the home of former President Jimmy Carter – and Sylvania focus more heavily on providing tourists with information about the historic sites located in the two communities, Capezzuto said.

“Plains and Sylvania fit very well within [the DNR’s] operation,” he said.