The blue-striped cushions on the benches in the hallway look and feel as if no one has ever sat on them. Wires poke out of the walls in some of the meeting rooms. Permeating the hallways is the unmistakable smell of freshly installed carpet. All are signs that the newly opened Montgomery County Conference Center in North Bethesda still needs some breaking in.
But if the rapid pace of bookings continues, the $80 million meeting site will have more than enough visitors to lend it a lived-in look.
The conference center, which opened Nov. 1, has events scheduled as far out as 2009.
County officials have long argued that there was pent-up demand for a first-class conference center in the county and that the lack of one was hampering the county's ability to attract meeting and convention business.
"The point of the conference center was to keep groups who could no longer meet here because they have outgrown the space available, and attract new business," said Kelly Groff, executive director of the Conference and Visitors Bureau of Montgomery County. Until now, Groff said, the largest ballroom in the county was 7,700 square feet.
By contrast, the new center has a 23,303-square-foot ballroom that can accommodate a reception for 3,200 people, making it the third largest in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area. The conference center also has a 130-seat amphitheater with wireless Internet service, state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment and ergonomic chairs for long meetings. Throughout, there are marble tables, hand-painted ceilings and built-in counters for papers or food.
The conference center is connected to a 225-room hotel and a 750-space parking lot, with overflow lots available at the nearby Montgomery County Aquatic Center.
County officials take extra pride in the center because it is the product of a public-private partnership involving the county; the state of Maryland; Quadrangle Development Corp., a District-based developer; and ING, a Dutch financial services firm.
The county put in $20 million, as did the state. Quadrangle and ING put in the other $40 million. The state paid for its investment by issuing bonds. The county paid for its portion with a combination of current county revenue and bonds, which will be paid back with revenue from a 2 percent increase in the hotel tax.
Under its agreement with the state, the county must cover any losses by the conference center, but it also reaps the bulk of any profits, said Christine Benjamin, manager of public-private partnerships for the county Office of Economic Development.
In 2000, consultant Basile Baumann Prost & Associates of Annapolis estimated that the conference center eventually would generate $2.4 million a year in profit for the state and about $800,000 a year in profit for Montgomery County.
The center may surpass those projections, Benjamin said. It was originally projected to post a loss during the first two years of operation. But now, given the volume of bookings, it is projected to make a profit of about $200,000 for Montgomery County alone by the end of this fiscal year, Benjamin said.
The county will receive additional revenue as the center's landlord. It owns the 12 acres that the conference center and hotel sit on, next to the White Flint Metro station. The county paid $7.5 million to buy land around the station from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in 1996 and now leases part of it to the hotel. Marriott International, the giant Bethesda-based hotel operator, manages the conference center and hotel for all four owners.
Several sizable annual events that used to take place at venues such as Indian Spring Country Club will now be held at the new conference center, including the upcoming State of the County address by Montgomery County Executive Douglas A. Duncan (D) and the Miss Maryland USA Pageant.
The intention in developing the new conference center wasn't to take business away from other local venues, said Joseph Shapiro, county economic development spokesman. The conference center has a different niche, he said, offering "executive-level" facilities and services for product development meetings, training and executive retreats. Until now, such high-end corporate events were often held at hotels in downtown Washington. The new conference center, Shapiro said, "is not for every bar and bat mitzvah."
Duncan first proposed the conference center in 1995, to be completed in 1998. But the project was delayed after residents living in condominiums across the street from the site, at Executive Boulevard and Marinelli Road, raised concerns about the center's effect on traffic in the area. It is just south of the congested intersection of Rockville Pike and Montrose Road.
One resident, David H. Brown, filed legal challenges. Brown's case was dismissed. Brown did not answer calls to his North Bethesda condo seeking comment.
Leesa N. Weiss, another North Bethesda resident who initially opposed the project, said it was too soon to tell whether the conference center and hotel will create the traffic snarls residents feared it would. Said Weiss, "It is really a matter of, 'Has the county done, and will it continue to do, what it said it would to mitigate traffic?' "