Several members of the Madison County business community lobbied county supervisors on Monday to develop a conference center, which they say is a great need and currently stymies business opportunities.

Businesswoman Gail Pittman told supervisors that throughout development of a strategic plan for Madison County, the need for a conference center continued to arise.

"There is no place in Madison County where you can accommodate a meeting of more than 300 people," she said. "You have to go outside Madison County."

She said they were wanting to develop a conference center - not a convention center or amphitheater - which would include ballroom space, meeting spaces, breakout spaces and more.

C.H. Johnson of Johnson Consulting in Chicago presented a multi-slide market analysis which he said showed a great need for a conference center in the county.

"Your demographics and economic strength are very positive and appropriate for this type of project," he said.

Johnson said with he exception of the convention center in Jackson there is "really a great limitation for events to come to the central part of the state."

Johnson's proposed program would include 15,000 square feet of ballroom space, 10,000 square feet of meeting space, and 63,200 square feet of total facility space.

According to Johnson, Madison County continues to miss out on groups requesting meeting space for groups of 350 or more and numerous societies and associations that have expressed interest in hosting events have had to choose elsewhere.

Four sites were identified as being optimal for a conference center: Holmes Community College (old Fitness Lady location), one site on Highland Colony Parkway, and Parkway East. A fourth site was not specifically identified but would be inside the city of Madison on or near Highland Colony Parkway.

Partnering with Holmes would help subsidize operation and development costs but expansion options would be limited, Johnson's presentation showed.

Locating on Highland Colony Parkway would allow close proximity to Renaissance at Colony Park, the presentation showed.

Development on Parkway East could help spur future economic development and leverage development of an interchange, the report states.

Not included in the presentation, however, were costs associated with building the conference center and what possible funding sources were available.

"It's definitely a need for this in Madison County," District 3 Supervisor Gerald Steen said. "It's just a matter of how to make it happen."

He added, "This has to be a partnership between local government and the private sector."

Pittman said there were many funding possibilities but they want the county to come on-board in support of the project and for supervisors to work out the fine print.

District 4 Supervisor David Bishop said roads were the most important thing in his mind and "we're talking hundreds of people (current capacity for meetings) difference and millions of dollars to build it."

He added, "We're just not seeing your facts behind the numbers. Right now, in my opinion, roads are the most important things here."

Pittman said that roads in and of themselves don't make money, but like a conference center, it creates opportunity for business development.

Wesley Goings, CEO of Telapex Inc., the parent company of C Spire, said they employ 600 in Madison County and currently have to utilize Holmes Community College for training space.

"We have a great need for additional space," he said, referencing training and hosting sponsored events for the community.

Mark Garriga of Butler Snow said their conference room at their corporate office is currently booked months in advance and just cannot accommodate the needs.

"That conference center is booked constantly," he said. "We can't accommodate overnight conferences because we can only allow the space to be used one day."

Buster Bailey, one of the architects behind Highland Colony Parkway and the Renaissance at Colony Park, told supervisors that since they built Highland Colony there has been $700 million of development along the road.

"The need and demand for such a facility has only grown," he said since starting this study 10 years ago. "I would like to ask you to continue to progress forward in Madison County."

District 5 Supervisor Paul Griffin said he supported the endeavor, but asked that whatever is built is big enough to accommodate area high schools for proms and graduations.

"I support it," he said. "We have to look at this."