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Southeast: Capital ventures

Courtesy Charleston CVB

Stodgy and buttoned-down aren’t adjectives that suit today’s state capitals.

Always gracious hosts to the legislators and lobbyists who descend upon them regularly, the Southeast’s centers of state government in recent years have added sparkle.

For example, $3 billion in new development has given Raleigh, N.C., a robust urban center.

“Before our downtown renaissance, people came for work and left,” said Jana Rae Oliver, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Now it’s bustling at all hours, we have scads of meeting space, and attendees have lots to do when their meetings end for the day.”

In answer to a planner’s question, “What’s new?,” the following six capital cities can respond with an enthusiastic “Wait till you see this!”

Raleigh, N.C.

In the past few years, North Carolina’s capital has opened a 500,000-square-foot convention center, a 400-room hotel, a 550-seat amphitheater and a public plaza for outdoor events. Its main convention hotel and downtown art museum also have been renovated.

“A few years ago, there was a crane on every corner downtown,” said Oliver. “Now we’re reaping the rewards.”

Most of the development is within blocks of the Raleigh Convention Center, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver building that is linked to the new 390-room Raleigh Marriott City Center. The recently upgraded, 353-room Sheraton Raleigh is next door.

A block away, midway between the North Carolina Capitol and the Progress Energy Center for Performing Arts, the two-year-old City Plaza is a site of concerts and parades and, on many days, a place to enjoy the outdoors. It is bordered by a number of restaurants.

Other downtown off-site venues include the 550-seat Raleigh Amphitheater, which opened in June next to the Raleigh Convention Center, and the 80,000-square-foot Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which opens this spring across the street from the State Capitol. The North Carolina Museum of Art, which has reopened after a major renovation, is a 10-minute drive from city center.

Recently, Raleigh beat out the big cities as Bloomberg Businessweek’s choice for America’s Best City and was named one of GQ’s Coolest Small Cities in America due to “great … hangouts like Poole’s Downtown Diner,” one of 125 eateries, pubs and nightclubs within walking distance of the convention center, hotels and the Capitol.

Elsewhere in this growing city, Raleigh-Durham International Airport completed a $570 million expansion a year ago; a second phase is under way. North Carolina State University expands options for outings with its Arnold Palmer-designed, 18-hole Lonnie Poole Golf Course, named one of 2009’s best new courses by Links magazine.


Baton Rouge, La.

Like Southern politics and many Southern landmarks, the Louisiana Capitol comes with a story. Actually, because it has two capitol buildings, Baton Rouge has multiple tales.

Built in 1847, the original Capitol, with a grand spiral staircase and stained glass dome, is often used for off-site events. Now the Museum of Political History, this distinguished example of Gothic Revival architecture burned twice while being used as a Union prison and garrison during the Civil War.

The old gray castle was rebuilt in 1882 and used as the seat of government until 1932, when the “new” 34-story, Art Deco-style Capitol was constructed. It was there that Gov. Huey Long was assassinated in 1935. Bullet holes can still be seen in its wall on a tour.

“Downtown Baton Rouge is a planner’s dream, with convention facilities, hotels, riverboat casinos, museums, off-site and entertainment venues all within easy walking distance,” said Geraldine Bordelon, director of destination sales for the Baton Rouge Area CVB. “Though the economic downturn hit us, construction is still going on.”

A $19 million expansion in 2011 added prefunction space and eight meeting rooms to the Baton Rouge River Center, which has a 26,000-square-foot ballroom and a 70,000-square-foot exhibition hall, all across the street from the Mississippi River.

A block away, the 290-room AAA Four Diamond Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, a 1927 National Historic Register property, was refurbished and reopened five years ago. Nearby, the Belle of Baton Rouge Hotel and Casino offers 42,000 square feet of meeting space. Eight miles from the convention center, the riverfront L’Auburge Casino and Hotel will open this summer, and near the Louisiana State University campus, a new 256-room Renaissance Hotel offers 20,000 square feet of meeting space.

Across from the Hilton, the Shaw Center for the Arts houses several off-site venues including the LSU Museum of Art, a 325-seat theater and a rooftop, river-view restaurant.


Jackson, Miss.

Although General Sherman burned Jackson three times during his march across the South, “The City with Soul” survived and thrived. Today, this Mississippi meetings destination at the crossroads of Interstates 55 and 20 has a metro population of 530,000, 5,000 hotel rooms, 300 restaurants and a 330,000-square-foot, LEED-certified convention center.

Opened three years ago, the Jackson Convention Complex’s most notable feature is its 25,000-square-foot ballroom.

Directly across the street, the Mississippi Museum of Art in November opened an Art Garden Stage and Terrace, a 1.2-acre green where the Mississippi Symphony performs. On-site caterer is the Palette Cafe by Viking, with executive chef Luis Bruno, former chef at the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion. The Executive Residence rents space to nonprofits.

The Old Capitol Museum, a Greek Revival treasure of Mississippi history, can accommodate up to 250 for an event in its House of Representatives chambers.

Two blocks away, the Hilton Garden Inn Jackson Downtown has 7,000 square feet of meeting space and quite a history. Built in the 1860s, the National Register of Historic Places property — once the King Edward Hotel — underwent a $90 million renovation to reopen in 2009.

“The one thing Jackson has needed meetingswise is an attached convention center hotel, and the city is actively pursuing that,” said Marika Cackett, manager of public relations for the Jackson CVB. For now, a hotel is up in the air, as bids from developers were recently rejected and a new request for proposals will soon be issued.

Later this year, construction of another downtown hotel, a 205-room Westin, is set to begin.
For corporate retreats, the AAA Four Diamond Fairview Inn has 13 suites, five guest rooms and a new spa. The historic property is a five-minute drive from downtown in Greater Belhaven, the neighborhood made famous by the New York Times bestseller “The Help.”