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A West Virginia Renaissance in Charleston

Hugging the meandering Kanawha River, Charleston is pure West Virginia: stunning mountain scenery, outdoor adventure and down-home friendliness. With the 293-foot, gold-domed state Capitol, a specialty shop and farmers market housed in a renovated train station, and a paved boulevard that rambles alongside the river, the city is welcoming and walkable. Downtown Charleston shines with live music, public art, galleries and performance theater. Its roots firmly planted in Appalachian cuisine, the city’s food scene rocks with restaurants such as Bluegrass Kitchen, where specialties include fresh-caught trout and buttermilk pie.

Three major interstate highways converge here, and the airport is but a five-minute drive from city center, where the Charleston Civic Center has grown to become the state’s premier meeting and conference spot.

Now, with tremendous development going on citywide, the capital city is upping its meetings capacities big time, with the civic center leading the charge.

Extensive Renovation

Since its opening in 1959, the civic center has witnessed a JFK presidential campaign appearance, has cheered as Wilt Chamberlain broke the NBA all-time scoring record and has hosted five sold-out Elvis Presley shows, not to mention untold numbers of meetings and events. Its last capital improvements were in 1980, and by 2014, the city and the center realized that to succeed at a higher level in the meetings market, upgrades were needed. So work began.

In September 2018, the $100 million renovation of the Charleston Civic Center will be unveiled, bringing the capital city into a new era of competitive strength in the meetings and conventions market.

“It’s very exciting,” said John Robertson, the center’s general manager. “We’ve had an active, well-used civic center, but it’s been utilitarian. We’ve often had to make things work. We’ll finally have dedicated, state-of-the-art meeting rooms and banquet facilities to accommodate a convention in the kind of facility that allows us to be marketable on a regional basis.”

Under one roof within the center are various separate components: a 13,500-seat spectator area with high-tech lighting and sound system; a 738-seat theater for performing-arts activities; and an impressive exhibition, meeting and convention component. Highlights of the latter include a 50,000-square-foot grand hall exhibit space, 20 meetings rooms with 25,000 square feet of space, a 25,000-square-foot ballroom for 1,500 seated and an 8,000-square-foot adjacent prefunction atrium that, with extending halls, can hold the ballroom’s capacity.

Reflecting West Virginia’s outdoorsy personality, the center embraces its location on the Elk River. Its ballroom has glass curtain walls to bring the gorgeous water views inside and an adjacent 30-by-30-foot outdoor veranda. The atrium, said Robertson, is all glass, “like a glass jewel box.” A park stretches between the river and the building, and a small boat dock whispers the possibility of a party boat.

Sending a message of environmental and social responsibility, the center has applied for LEED certification. As an example of dedication to reduction of its carbon footprint, the renovation has required a considerable amount of demolition, and 95 percent of construction trash has been recycled.

Amazingly, the facility has remained open during the project to host some 3,600 yearly functions, and planners are taking notice.

“We’re already getting traction from folks who’ve been in to see construction in progress as [they consider the venue as] a possible location for their forthcoming activities, not just statewide but regionally,” Robertson said.

Officials expect the renovation to help make Charleston a more competitive player in the regional meetings market.

“With the civic center renovation, Charleston will become the new meetings and convention option to large metropolitan areas such as Lexington, Louisville, Columbus, Cincinnati and Greensboro, not only from a standpoint of facility cost, but also transportation, hotel expense, and food and beverage,” Robertson said. “The dramatic changes in our physical facility will make our city a new and fresh place more attractive to planners. 

“Our projected renovation cost is $100 million, and it’s 100 percent city funded, with no state or federal dollars. That’s impressive for a little ol’ city of 50,000.”