Community center talk gaining steam

Vermillion is host to a 10,000-student state university.

However, the city lacks the capability to bring in a conference of more than 250 people, but the Vermillion Area Chamber & Development Company is already working to fix this.

A few months ago, the VCDC's Executive Director Steve Howe set up a small meeting to gauge the interest of local business owners and community members to see if there was interest or a need in building a conference center in order to attract small conferences and large receptions.

Even though the meeting was informal, the group came away with a definitive answer, Howe said.

"What we came out of it was there is a need, and we are seeing these groups go to other communities," he said. "We are losing events and small conferences, and I think we are missing the boat and letting tax revenue go out of this town."

Howe added there are no hard plans yet, but the group would like to proceed with it at some point.

Long-term Vermillion resident Ted Muenster said the conference center is something the city has needed for a while.

"I have thought there is a demand and a market for a center for small events, conferences and meetings," he said. "Most of the larger towns in the area have such a place."

"We have some facilities on campus, but they aren't not always available to the community, so I think the community would like something," he added.

An example Howe gave was the conference center at the Kelly Inn in Yankton, but there are no plans for a hotel to be attached to the center here.Right now, there are options for gatherings up to 250 people.

"Once you get over that, it becomes more difficult to find suitable space," Howe said.

Howe said Vermillion has been approached to host conferences more than 250 people, but he doesn't know exactly how much the city is missing out on right now.

"We don't know because you aren't even being considered because you don't have it, but we have heard at least a half a dozen because we don't have the space," he said. "That's not counting larger wedding receptions that go to Yankton or Sioux Falls as well."

One place in Vermillion that could possibly hold a conference the size of which a new center could hold is the Muenster University Center.

Howe said the University of South Dakota has let him know the MUC is open to the public to lease, but there are numerous restrictions.

"There are some different restrictions, from special permission to use alcohol or from a catering standpoint, you are restricted to using Aramark unless they give you the permission to do otherwise," he said. "While it's a viable option for some, for many it's not."

Howe said he is being realistic in how big the center should be, and he said he isn't looking for something like the convention center in Sioux Falls.

"We don't have the size; we are thinking a small conference center," he said. "It would be in the 500-person area, nothing major."

While Howe has a general idea of what he would like for a conference center, he said the planning is still its infancy."

Right now it's just in an informational gathering stage," he said. "We had an informational session to get general feedback, and now we are looking into how these things are funded."

Howe doesn't know how much the center would cost, but it is being investigated.He also hasn't decided on how extravagant he wants the building to be, but he wants it to hold 500 people, with a lot of open space and something that can be sectioned off for smaller events and conferences.

"Beyond that, we don't have much of a picture yet," he said.

Funding for the conference center is another hurdle Howe would have to work around.

"We understand conference centers aren't financially viable as a stand alone business," he said. "We don't want to utilize public or chamber money for the center."

Muenster said in order to get the conference center built, it will have to be done by many different groups.

"I think it has to be done with a lot of different interest from the city, the chamber and the university," he said. "I don't think one entity could do it; you need a community approach."

Howe is hoping to have another meeting about a potential conference center in the upcoming weeks, but he said the need is there.

"It might go nowhere, and it isn't an absolute, but we get calls from people who want to do things and we can't accommodate them," he said. "I do believe we are missing out on opportunities."

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