The Forum River Center in Rome is poised to once again become a significant force for economic development in Rome and Floyd County. The Forum management team believes that improvements made as a result of funding from the 2013 SPLOST package have significantly upgraded the facility and made it more attractive for a wide variety of users.

The 2013 special purpose, local option sales tax package included a $1.4 million allocation for a variety of projects at the Forum. At the end of 2018 the revised budget for the work was set at $1.28 million. The bulk of that money has been spent in the past two years — $801,973 in 2017 and $213,070 in 2018.

“Things have been rapidly escalating in terms of volume and number of events, but we’re still nowhere close to where we want to be,” said Mike Bankston, vice president with Safari Hospitality, the firm retained by Floyd County to oversee management of the facility in 2016. “We’re ready to give it a big push,” he said.

All of the work proposed in the SPLOST package has been completed except for two minor projects.

“We’re ready to completely rock and roll the building,” Bankston said.

One of the newest additions to the services provided at the Forum River Center is an in-house catering service, Palate Catering and Design.

A second person has been hired to join the sales and marketing team at the venue. Bankston said Thomas Kislat will handle conventions and associations, while Clair Ford will specialize in weddings and social events.

Bankston said that one thing Rome needs that is well beyond his control, is more entertainment options.

“They tell us that places like Atlanta have things like the College Football Hall of Fame and all that sort of stuff. We don’t have any of that,” Bankston said.

Rome City Manager Sammy Rich said Bankston’s idea was an interesting concept.

“The example that comes to mind for me is when you’re looking at Chattanooga, when they started their redevelopment their first big venture was the Chattanooga Aquarium,” Rich said. “We have a number of attractions but not necessarily to that size or extent, but I like the concept.”

Bankston said that his staff tries to convince folks of Rome’s outdoor attractions, like the rivers, but that a lot of groups don’t hold their major conventions or associational meetings in the summer because of vacation conflicts.

“If we can get this thing back here going, the river arts district, that would probably be a big draw because we’d have Broad Street on one side and the arts district on the other, and we’re right in the middle. It would be awesome,” Bankston said. “We’ve got to be able to compete with places like Spartanburg, South Carolina, and communities that are not huge to go after some of those small association meetings.”

Safari Hospitality took over management functions of the facility in July 2016.

Brent Poplin, who has been with the Forum River Center since June of 1996 and general manager for the past 10 years, said the building is not without its challenges, but is a much better facility that it was two decades ago.

“We’ve got more opportunities to show what we can do and have had a greater diversity of events,” Poplin said. He said the addition of the chandeliers in the arena have been a huge addition to the venue, and the series of improvements to the first floor ballroom has created a much nicer atmosphere for banquets and a lot of the corporate business.

“The way we can dress the arena now for wedding packages, we can get much larger groups, not only for weddings, but banquets and those sort of things,” Poplin said.

“They have opened the door for us to sell meetings and conventions in Rome. The combination of that and additional hotels within walking distance with a pristine, safe environment downtown has really opened us back up to being able to go after meetings,” said Lisa Smith, director of the Georgia’s Rome Office of Tourism. Twenty-some-odd years ago we were the newest, shiniest offering in Northwest Georgia when it opened and we got a lot of business activity. People around us became more competitive and had more options for people to come to their towns, so it’s really nice to see us back to where we need to be and getting more of that mid-week business which helps all of our hotels thrive.”

Kislat, who is a shared employee between the Forum River Center and the Office of Tourism, confirmed that multi-day conventions are picking up, and lots of bookings have been made for 2020.

“It helps to have three hotels downtown within walking distance,” Kislat said.

The showcase last week was an effort to show vendors and meeting planners that the Forum River Center is a fresh, almost re-invented and improved space.

“We have so many different things we can offer for conventions, weddings, business meetings, receptions, concerts, ice skating,” Kislat said.

The ice rink that was brought to the venue was such a big hit last year that management was able to convince promoters of the annual Three Rivers Bull Riding event to move their competition to later in January so that the rink could stay up all the way through the holidays this year.

It took a couple of days to remove the ice rink and several days to bring in dirt for the bull riding, so the Forum lost some prospective dates for skating while school was out last year. This year, the rink will be set up from Nov. 15 through Jan. 6.

Kislat said he is planning a big New Year’s Eve program on the ice this year.

Another addition will be an 8-foot ice slide which Kislat believes will be a big hit for children.

He said the ice rink was a great way to show Romans what is available at the Forum River Center and help convince locals that the facility could be the right place for special events of a local nature.

Bankston and his staff are hoping to see an even greater variety of special events in the future, including a number of self-promoted events like the ice rink.