But will it be enough to cover operating expenses?
Almost seven months since stepping into the position, Wilson County Expo Center Marketing Director Charity Toombs said the schedule is shaping up.
As of today, she is the only employee for the $11.5 million facility but said she has been busy speaking with potential event planners about Wilson County's soon-to-be newest attraction.
The center, which is currently under construction, plans to be open in the fall of this year. Even though it is not yet completed, that hasn't slowed the inquiries.
"A lot of the (inquiring) events come from Middle Tennessee," Toombs said. "They are most excited about the idea of a new facility, which is a plus, and are looking for an overall better experience."
Ag Center pushed the project forward
The composition of the booking calendar is being made up of a combination of current James E. Ward Ag Center events and new ones, Toombs said from her office at the Ag Center.
"I don't think people realize how many events are held at the Ag Center," she said. "There's almost always something here."
And a quick look at the facility's calendar backs it up. Only six days during the months of March, April, May and June are unbooked. During that same time, several multi-day events are scheduled, such as the Tennessee Beef Agribition, F100 Supernationals, the popular County Living Fair and the Jr. High National Rodeo Finals, which is expected to generate $10 million for the local economy.
It was, in fact, the growth at the Ag Center that fast-forwarded the plan to construct the Expo Center and its design, according to Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto.
"We looked at the clientele who asked for covered-air space," Hutto said when considering building the Expo Center and how to construct the space. "We found that the Ag Center itself had a lot of events that were needing larger covered space that had outgrown the East/West Building."
And it's not a new idea. Hutto said early plans for an Expo Center have dated back as far as the 1960s.
Lots of research before going forward
Hutto said he and several members of the Ag Center Committee, such as chair Larry Tomlinson, as well as local architect Mike Manous, researched what configuration would work best at the fairgrounds.
In the end, they decided to go forward with the design which featured a large, open, flat main exhibit space with concrete floors which will encompass 45,000-square-feet and two multipurpose rooms, which can be split for smaller groups, of either two 3,200-square-feet each or four 1,636-square-feet, if split.
"We looked at a fixed-seating option, like they have at the Williamson County expo center, and they have a dirt floor, but they told us the fixed seating and flooring were a hindrance in booking a wide variety of events," Hutto said.
Original idea not for rodeo, fair, graduations
"From the beginning, everyone has commented that this would be great for the rodeo, great for the fair, great for graduations. But it wasn't initially built for those events. It was made to be an extension to the Ag Center," Hutto said.
Although not built with those events in mind, they all could benefit for covered-roof event space. And those events were taken into consideration during the research of the facility, he added.
Hutto said they have explored the opportunities to host local high school graduations at the center, which could be configured to seat nearly 7,000 according to the mayor and facility documents. They could most easily serve as backup sites for Lebanon and Watertown High School graduations, who historically hold their graduations on their football fields, in case of inclement weather.
"And for the bigger classes, such as Mt. Juliet (High School) and Wilson Central (High School), we've discussed 'what about graduating A through M at, say, 10 a.m., and N through Z at noon,'" Hutto added.
"And what's the first thing you do when you leave the graduation? You go out to eat. It would be better if all the schools that hold graduations in Nashville or Murfreesboro could stay here, in county."
Hutto said Wilson County Promotions, the non-profit that organizes the Wilson County Fair, said the Expo Center could be used during upcoming fair events.
Discussions are being held with both groups to come up with solutions that benefit them and the Expo Center alike.
"We've discussed things like perhaps they (Wilson County Promotions) pay August's utility bills for the Expo Center instead of a rental fee, since they have been such a longtime partner with us out there and the profits go back into the Ag Center."
On average, Hutto said, Wilson County Promotions reinvest between $300,000 and $500,000 to the Ag Center annually.
The Williamson County Expo Center/Arena is a 150-foot by 300-foot dirt floor arena with fixed seating for 4,180. They often carpet the dirt floor for expos and events in the center of the arena.
"This layout allows us to bring in more options and use the total space we have."
The Expo designers and staff have created renderings of the completed facility as well as a virtual walk-through that gives potential event planners an idea of the size and configuration of the building.
Extension of Ag Center drives decisions
Toombs said the marketing material created for the center highlights several configuration setups aimed at potential renters. These numbers show the potential attendees of the main exhibit hall:
Trade show, 10x10 booths: 252
Banquet, 68-inch tables: 2,100
Basketball: 4 courts
Volleyball: 8 courts
The multipurpose room is smaller than the main exhibit hall and can be setup for several uses. It may also be split in half for smaller groups:
Classroom: 116 or 58
Theater: 252 or 126
Banquet: 222 or 128
Meeting: 68 or 34
Mixture of new and existing events
Toombs said the bookings so far have been a mixture of new and existing events at the Ag Center. She's even confirmed at least 10 multi-day bookings beginning this winter.
"Several of the events are an additional element to already booked events at the Ag Center," she said. "There is so much in the pipeline. I'm excited about being able to offer one-of-a-kind, curated experiences."
She added that architect Manous modeled the Expo Center after Sevierville's Convention Center.
"One thing that will be different about our space than other exhibit spaces in the area is going to be the amount of natural light. Organizers have been excited about the fact that it won't be dark and cold."
November is the earliest possible date for an event, she said. There has already been one event booked for December.
"A majority of existing Ag Center events are interested in upgrading to the Expo," she added.
Operations not yet up and running
Currently, Toombs is the only employee of the Expo Center, Hutto said.
However, the next hire will be a general manager position, which the mayor described as the overseer of the facility itself, the "one who knows where all the switches are." The job description will be posted online in the next month, he expected.
Construction crews are being led by Rusty Thompson of Thompson-Steed, LLC, which competitively bid and was awarded the Construction Management contract for the Expo Center construction. Thompson represents Wilson County in construction-related matters and manage the eleven Prime Contractors who are building the Expo.
"Charity's goal is to be full when we open up," Hutto said. "The GM will then pick up after booking to see the event through."
Hutto added that the general manager will then hire three custodial/setup people to help convert the space between bookings and help manage the facility's day-to-day operations.
Toombs said each event will require a different revenue expense, meaning more or less electrical/water needs. In total, the Expo Center is expected to cost approximately $500,000-600,000 annually to operate. That does not include the payment on the $11.5 million bond note, which Hutto said would be paid from the increased economic impact generated from events.
With the goal for rentals to cover operational expenses, at an average daily rate of $4,000, the Expo Center would need to book in excess of 100 days per year.
"The goal would be to have the rental fees go towards the operational costs," Hutto added. "The goal is to have 200 annual events booked. In November when we open, I would like the next year fully booked. But the first year will be the benchmark."
Overall economic impact considered
Toombs said she is working with the Joint Economic Community Development Board on projections based on attendees and events booked at the Expo Center. Each attendee has a dollar amount that can be projected in increased economic impact based on local restaurant sales, hotel stays and purchases made within the county while attending the event.
"According to the economic impact formula from the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, or TDTD, for the event of Heart of Tennessee Antique Show coming February 2017, the estimated economic impact is $267,750," Toombs said.
And Hutto confirmed they want to be held accountable to the county commission and, ultimately, the taxpayers.
"We will be keeping up with expenses," Hutto said. "The Expo Center will be on its own electric meter, its own water meter, its own gas meter. We are going to be looking at the revenue and expenses, profits or negatives, from the onset."
In addition to facility expenses, Hutto said the approval of the Expo Center has improved other economic factors near it.
"We are looking at the possibility of acquiring a hotel. Also, there have been a lot of speculative entrepreneurs looking to buy land near the Hwy. 70, Carthage Hwy, Interstate 40 areas.
"A lot of things are really clicking out there. It's changing the whole face of the east side (of Lebanon)."
Event organizer will rent flooring, seating
Future to expand?
As items are needed regularly, Hutto said it might make more sense to purchase those to offer clients, such as additional seating or tables.
But both agreed that if successful or need arises, the Expo Center could be expanded in a couple ways.
One way would be to add an additional retail/cafe space on the front of the building which would include a commercial kitchen.
"Most of the inquiries are interested in caterting options," she said. "Currently, there are no cooking elements in place. But in the 3-5 year growth plan could be to add a cafe extension," open for walk-up customers and could cater events in the facility.
Hutto added that the main exhibit hall, which is 45,000 square feet, could be doubled to 90,000 under the same roof.
"There is enough room to that side of the center to expand if we saw need to."
Hutto and Toombs said event-goers to ticketed events at the Expo Center will be charged a "$1 maintenance fee" to offset part of the facility's expense.
However, events that are not ticketed or free to the public, or private group, would not charge the fee.
As is the industry standard, Hutto said the Expo Center will need to rent certain equipment when needed, such as riser seating, tables and chairs over a certain amount, and specialty items such as wood flooring and goals for basketball tournaments, or rubberized flooring and apparatus for events like a gymnastics event.
Audio Visual equipment such as projectors and screens will be on-site.
He said it doesn't make financial sense to purchase many specialty items that might only be used once or twice a year. It will also require a large amount of storage space to keep them when not in use.
"I guess you could compare it to a house. A good way to describe it would be that when you buy a new house, it comes unfurnished. It's up to the people who come in to furnish it."
Ticketing, security and other operational requirements would need to be furnished by the event organizers, not the Expo Center.
Goal: 'running like a machine'
"Our goal for the first year is to cover operating expenses, but to also book as much as we can," Toombs said. "In three to five years, my goal is to have it running like a machine.
"I want to bring in large-scale events that bring entertainment value to the whole community. And if none come in, we are taking the initiave for the Expo Center to create their own.
"The majority (of events already booked) are outward community entertainment events. The big goal is for sporting events and business opportunities. There isn't anything in Nashville that we couldn't create here."
Toombs added that industry research shows that attendees for entertainment-based events source from a 10-mile radius of the facility.
When comparing the Wilson County Expo Center to Williamson County's facility, Toombs said she hopes everyone will be fair and understanding in their comparison.
"Wilson County's Expo Center is 15 years old and located in the most affluent county in Tennessee. They book 200 dates a year. It would be unfair to compare our center to theirs in the first year."
However, she is excited about the opportunity to bring events to Wilson County's own center.
"One of my goals is to create a unique, intimate opportunity for events in Middle Tennessee. We will be a niche event space. Some events will be suited for it, some will not."
Managing Editor Zack Owensby may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.