Phase I of the $202.5 million Virginia Beach Convention Center will open in June, featuring an innovative design by architectural firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, said Director of Convention Sales Al Hutchinson in an interview last week. Highlights include soaring glass walls and both interior and exterior pools of water, a 10-story observation deck, a cybercafe, a 10-foot-by-10-foot grid permanently etched into the exhibition floor to ease setup, and meeting space that is divisible into four meeting suites, or "pods."

With more than 300,000 square feet of space, including approximately 57,000 square feet of exhibit space, 19,000 square feet of meeting room space, and a 31,029-square-foot ballroom, Virginia Beach is now "aggressively pursuing the national association market and the SMERF markets," said Hutchinson. More than 1,000 free parking spaces will be available.

Entering a highly competitive market, the new center will be vying for business with centers in cities like Baltimore; Savannah, Ga.; Charlotte, N.C.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Richmond, Va., according to Hutchinson. Hutchinson said the convention center has booked the American Bus Association’s 2008 convention, which expects 4,000 attendees using 8,000 room-nights. To date, 62 events have been booked for 2005 to 2010, seven of which are brand-new to the area.

The center is offering an incentive package to planners who book between now and December 31, 2005, for meetings to be held in 2006 and beyond. It is giving a discount of 25 percent to 100 percent off of room rental at the convention center (based on the number of room-nights and food and beverage booked).

The existing 23-year-old building will be demolished on completion of Phase I, and construction will then begin on Phase II. When that is completed in January 2007, the convention center will total 516,522 square feet, which will encompass 150,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 31,029-square-foot ballroom, and 29,000 square feet of meeting space. There will be 2,300 parking spaces.

The City of Virginia Beach, which owns and operates the convention center, is also focusing on developing the central business district, Town Center, a 10-minute drive from the convention center. A 176-room Hilton Garden Inn recently opened there; and a 30-story Westin with 215 guest rooms on the first 12 floors and the remaining floors devoted to condominium units is now under construction with a 2007 opening planned. Also in the works for Town Center: a performing arts theater that seats 1,400, to open in 2007.

The 19th Street Project, also under development, will link the conference center to the oceanfront, six blocks away. The mixed–use project will encompass housing, restaurants, and retail stores in a pedestrian-friendly zone. On the beach at 19th Street, the 110-room Fairfield Inn by Marriott opened in September.

At 31st Street, a development called 31 Ocean will see the grand opening of the $62 million, 295-room Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront next month. The project also includes upscale shops and restaurants such as Tommy Bahamas and Starbucks. The city hopes to link the conference center, the oceanfront district and Town Center with a new BRT, or bus rapid transit system, though approval for the project has yet to be obtained.