Gateway Conference Center is new front door for Chester County and the region

August 19, 2013 

It has the three “L’s” – location, location, location.

It has visibility. The property is easily seen from Interstate 77 and 100,000 vehicles drive past it daily.

It has space. Two buildings total about 30,000 square feet. Only half of the 12-acre site is developed. There is room to grow.

But it took a woman’s touch to transform a former automotive mall into a showplace for Chester County.

The Gateway Conference Center holds its grand opening Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at what once was the Nourse Interstate Auto Mall. The center is just off the intersection of I-77 and S.C. 9. There will be storytellers and artisans, as well as local businesses, on hand to showcase what Chester County has to offer its guests – and its residents.

Chester officials say the Gateway is a chance to create a front door for the community. To show that behind a largely rural landscape Chester – the county, the city and all the towns in between – is a progressive place, a good place to live or do business.

The name and location are not an accident. A study in 2007 proposed developing the intersection as the county’s gateway. The name was chosen to reflect the entire county, not just one segment.

The final design is not an accident, either. Credit county economic director Karlisa Parker and Jayne Scarborough, director of the Old English Tourism District, for applying a woman’s touch, giving the center the amenities that make it suitable for everything from a manly outdoor convention to women’s night out to that special day, a wedding.

Parker was among those who saw the potential of the Nourse site.

Richard Nourse purchased the dealership from popular Chester businessman Ralph Kirby in 2003. He moved the dealership from the J.A. Cochran Bypass in 2005, selling General Motor cars from one building and Chrysler products from the other. In 2009 General Motors ended its affiliation. Shortly thereafter the dealership closed. The building was first for lease and then for sale.

Parker and others advocated buying the site for a convention center. The Chester Healthcare Foundation purchased the property in December 2010 for $1.8 million with the intention that the county would repay it.

With the property in hand, a two-year renovation process began. Among those first to sign on was Scarborough and the tourism district. The district owns land less than a half mile from the interstate, but when Scarborough saw the potential of Nourse property, the district’s building plans were put on hold.

It was also the perfect location for the tourism district. The Gateway is just about in the center of the six-county region the district serves – Chester, Chesterfield, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lancaster and York counties.

When it came time to turn the two buildings from a showroom to a showplace, Parker walked the building with architects and contractors. They placed strips of blue painters’ tape on the floor where they wanted walls to go.

Cleanup crews recently found a small strip of tape still visible and asked Parker if they should remove it. Leave it, she said. It’s a reminder of how far the project has come.

The development process also included listening to people, determining all the possible uses for the Gateway and making sure there were rooms to meet those needs.

One of the first major changes in the $2.5 million renovation was constructing a bathrooms/mechanical room complex that connects the two buildings.

A curved wall was included in the design so some of the space can serve as an art gallery.

The curved wall became a circle. Inside the circle is a bride’s suite. A large mirror bisects the circle. On one side there is room for the bride to get ready, on the other side there’s room for her bridesmaids to prepare.

Just off the men’s bathroom is a square room with a wet bar and flat-screen television – the prefect place for the groom to relax before the “I dos,” or a speaker to prepare for a lecture.

There is a large ballroom and several conference and meeting spaces, capable of handling small to large groups.

Along the back of the building is a corridor with space for catering firms to prepare their meals. Several of the large doors where cars once rolled in were kept to provide easy access for caterers and others bringing equipment to the Gateway.

Interest in the Gateway is rising. For the first time in many years all of Chester County’s high schools will have a local prom, not having to travel to either Lancaster or Rock Hill to rent space.

Future uses envisioned for the Gateway include health fairs, conventions, maybe even movie festivals or other art events.

Parker also hopes that a May job fair held at Gateway will become a regular event. More than 1,000 people came to interview with multiple employers, and some left with jobs. A high school career expo is also planned. That is good news for Chester County, where the unemployment rate has been in double digits for far too long.

The tourism district also has opened a market at the site, selling the wares of local artisans and other products produced in South Carolina. If funding can be found, Scarborough hopes to start “Sweet Tea” Friday, giving away glasses of sweet tea made in Fairfield County.

Soon to go up will be digital billboard visible from the interstate. The billboard will promote events at the Gateway, and Chester officials are hoping they get the approval to promote other events in Chester County on the billboard. A better direction sign on S.C. 9 also is in the works. Currently, it’s a challenge to navigate to the center.

Chester’s new front door is open, and it makes an impressive first impression. Inside, Parker, Scarborough and others are ready answer the question: Why Chester?

VIDEO BELOW

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066 •  dworthington@heraldlonline.com

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