National Guard Highlights Need For Bigger Convention Center

A Bradley tank narrowly made it through the convention center's hallway. Then it squeezed through the loading dock door -- much like National Guard vendors squeezed into the Biloxi expo hall.

Col. Gervis Parkerson was co-chair of the National Guard conference. "We turned down somewhere between 80-100 exhibitors that we didn't have space for," he said.

According to coliseum director Bill Holmes, "We utilized very space that we had."

Holmes believes it's once again time to expand the convention center. In 1997, he added 85,000 square feet of meeting space. A 180,000 square foot addition could be proposed this time. "That's what we're looking for," he said. "We want bigger conventions, we want more conventions."

The National Guard Association of the United States conference had 3,500 delegates and a thousand vendors. The vendors actually packed up a day early. The only way the National Guard could hold Wednesday's state dinner was to move out the displays, and move in the dinner tables.

"We've got to have bigger facilities," Holmes said, "because we can do bigger, better everyday."

In mid October, the coliseum will release a feasibility study. Holmes said the report will recommend that South Mississippi double the size of the convention center complex. It will also put a price tag on expansion. And it will pinpoint ways to pay for it. Holmes hinted that a tourism tax increase was likely.

Col. Parkerson had no problem with the possible tax bump. "I know as a customer and as a life long resident, it can't be anything but good for Mississippi," the National Guardsman said. "I would pay more taxes for it."

Expansion supporters believe there are other large groups just like that National Guard that would come to Biloxi, if the convention center expanded.

The last convention center expansion cost $10 million. An extra half cent sales tax on hotel rooms paid for most of that expansion.