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Convention center expected to open in 2009

At times, it didn’t seem possible.

At times, it didn’t seem possible.

The Lancaster convention-center project has finally become more associated with construction workers than lawyers.

After years of courthouse wrangling between opponents and supporters, construction of the $170 million center and adjacent hotel is steaming ahead. The complex is expected to open in March 2009.

The commencement of building at Penn Square has kicked several other efforts into high gear. The county’s visitors bureau and the center’s management are marketing the center to meeting planners. Historic preservationists continue with their effort to turn an area adjacent to the center into a museum and educational facility.

Construction of the center and hotel began in earnest early this year. So far, the work has focused on demolition of old structures and creation of new foundations for the complex, said Tom Smithgall, senior vice president of development for High Associates Ltd. in East Lampeter Township, Lancaster County. Smithgall is master developer for the project, representing the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority, Penn Square Partners and Lancaster’s redevelopment authority.

The next steps in construction include building a steel structure on the south end of the center site, as well as beginning the vertical construction of the hotel tower, Smithgall said. The hotel, the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, is expected to have 300 rooms when it is completed.

The effort to attract tourists and meetings to the center is moving ahead, too. In July, Joshua Nowak was hired to oversee day-to-day sales and marketing activities for the center. Nowak is an employee of Interstate Hotels & Resorts Inc., the Arlington, Va.-based company that will manage the hotel and convention center.

The center is now far enough along that it is possible for groups to book events, though Nowak was mum about whether any have done so yet.

“There’s been very strong interest,” he said.

Helping in the marketing effort is the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau in East Lampeter Township. The bureau has promoted the center at several trade shows and is working with area hotels and attractions to figure out the best ways to cater to the influx of visitors the center is expected to bring.

The bureau’s goal is to generate leads that Interstate can follow up on, said Christopher Barrett, the bureau’s president and chief executive officer.

“We want to get those planners to the table of Interstate,” he said.

The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County also is preparing for the center’s arrival. The trust has worked for several years to convert several buildings near the intersection of Queen and Vine streets into a museum and educational center. The project would honor Civil War-era politician and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith, who managed his home and businesses.

The trust is preparing the historic site for eventual construction and making sure the building of the convention center does not disturb the site, said Gail Tomlinson, who is leading the preservation effort for the trust. The next steps include restoring façades and designing exhibition areas, she said.

The historic project is expected to cost $20 million. The trust has raised $3.5 million so far and is working to get more funds from government and private sources, Tomlinson said.

Even though the convention center has caused much consternation in Lancaster, now is the time for everyone to come together to make sure that it’s successful, Barrett said.

“We think this is going to present a lot of opportunities for everyone,” he said.

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